Declan McLean, a student at the University of Strathclyde, shares his response to the SNP’s claim that they scrapped tuition fees, and explains how what they actually did – scrapping graduate endowments and cutting bursaries – means the poorest students today leave university with even greater debt.

This article was originally published on Declan’s own blog.

 

A recent tweet, and subsequent responses to it, has inspired me to write about my feelings towards tuition fees and access to university.

In the latest Party Political Broadcast from the SNP they claimed – once again – that they scrapped tuition fees. That is incorrect. In the first Scottish Government (Executive) since devolution, the Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition abolished tuition fees. That is to say that the payment a student made to a university for the education they would receive was abolished a number of years prior to the SNP taking office.

What the SNP actually got rid of was the graduate endowment. We need to recognise the difference between these two things. The graduate endowment was a charge all people who had attended university paid that funded the bursaries of students coming from the poorest of backgrounds. In scrapping the graduate endowment, the SNP also reduced bursaries, forcing students like myself to rely on the student loans system.

Having tweeted a video which corrected the SNP’s claim, I have been inundated with tweets from the usual suspect lambasting me for being incorrect and, according to Wings Over Scotland, a “brainless young idiot”. A lot of anger about the education system and university thrown at me – a university student experiencing the education system. Go figure.

People are assuming that because I have drawn the distinction between tuition fees and the graduate endowment that I support charging people £9000 a year for tuition, which is completely untrue considering I’ll be the first to say that if I lived in England or in “Labour-run Wales” (as has been tweeted at me numerous times) where tuition fees exist, I might not have gone to uni. I say this because I come from the section of society that knows cost to be a genuine barrier to progress. I’ll never know if this would have prevented my ambition because Labour, yes Labour, abolished tuition fees a good number of years before I ever applied.

But this whole issue does spark a debate, and it’s one that we should be adult enough to discuss away from the hostility I have been faced with.

The gap between the richest and the rest is widening. Kids from well-off backgrounds are four times more likely to go onto higher education than their less well-off counterparts. And the gap doesn’t stop at the application form. A number of students get to university and cannot afford to stay there.

I’m proud that I’m the first in my family to go to university, but the reality of bursaries being insufficient for poorer students means that I have taken out a loan each year and will, by the end of my degree, have accumulated £28,000 of debt. That is terrifying. Indeed, that debt is higher than vast majority of starting salaries, and all because I simply pursued an education. By stark contrast, the graduate endowment cost people around £2000.

Meanwhile I am aware of a number of other students who have never taken out a loan, many of whom come from more well-off families. When they graduate, the only burden on their shoulders will have came from university’s natural demands over the years. They’ll begin their post-education lives £28,000 better off than me – not factoring in any pre-uni class advantage they already held.

From the position of seeking to redistribute wealth this system is flawed, because those paying back into the system are those who required a loan. It isn’t difficult to conclude that those people are most likely to be society’s poorest, not richest. On the other hand, the graduate endowment system ensured that everyone paid back in and, in accordance with wealth redistribution, that money flowed – as mentioned – to those students who needed additional support in the form of a higher bursary.

In theory, I oppose the idea of charge being attached to university education, but in practice the cost of attending university exists on a much larger scale for students like myself, the precise group that the entire system is supposed to be focused on helping.

Since the SNP took office and reduced bursaries there has been a 124% increase in the average student loan. That is the reality of the situation we find ourselves in now. Our system may seem fair in theory, but scratch beneath the surface and this growing debt coupled with class division is the real result of SNP policy. In today’s Scotland there is absolutely a cost for going to university and it’s far more demanding than it ever was.

I would imagine the simplest way of solving this would be to move our education system away from the reliance on student loans by properly funding bursaries, but that simply isn’t being pursued and each year more students take out more loans to cover their costs. I came to university with nothing and I am going to leave with even less. Perhaps leaving with less wouldn’t feel as crushing if there was a societal goodness in the payback process?

P.S. Labour abolished tuition fees in Scotland.