The gap between student battles in Scotland and the rest of the UK is growing

Scottish Labour has today announced a new ‘minimum student income’ of around £9,500 per year. Meanwhile, the UK Labour Party offer to university students in the rest of the country is to abolish tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants.

The latest policy announcement from Richard Leonard and the Scottish Labour Party highlights the growing gap between the debates over higher education in Scotland and the student battles being fought in the rest of the country.

The new Scottish student income would be made up of bursaries and loans, and it is thought that over 170,000 students would benefit. The yearly sum of £9,500 is based on a £10 living wage for 25 hours of study per week, over the 38 weeks in the academic session. Leonard has said that the policy will be funded from the additional Barnett consequentials of more than £3bn that Scotland would receive annually as a result of investment in public services announced by Labour.

The education spokesperson for Scottish Labour, Iain Gray MSP, explained: “Labour’s real living wage will be for everyone – students included. A Scottish Labour government elected in 2021 would direct the additional money provided by a UK Labour government to this purpose.”

In 1996, a review was conducted into how higher education would be funded for the next 20 years in the UK. Partly as a response to this, the Teaching and Higher Education Act was passed in 1998, which introduced tuition fees. Students initially paid up to £1,000 per year in fees.

After devolution, however, Scotland went in a different direction to the rest of the country. The Labour-led Scottish government abolished tuition fees in 2000, two years after their introduction by Labour under Blair. A one-off endowment fee of £2,000 was also introduced in Scotland from 2001-02, paid on completion of a degree. This later rose to £2,289.

The Higher Education Act 2004 allowed universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to increase tuition fees to £3,000 a year. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government then raised the cap on tuition fees to £9,250 annually in 2012. In Scotland, the endowment fee was abolished in 2008.

In England, around £16bn is loaned to approximately one million students a year and the value of outstanding loans at the end of March 2019 stood at £121bn. Government figures forecast that the sum of outstanding student debt will reach £450bn by 2050, and the average amount of debt of a student who finished studying in 2018 was £36,000.

The government says it expects that 30% of current undergraduate students will repay their student loans in full. In October 2017, the Prime Minister announced that the point at which people would begin to pay back their fees would be raised to £25,000. Following this reform, the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecast that 83% of graduates are now not expected to repay their loans within the 30-year repayment period.

Labour pledged to abolish tuition fees in the 2017 general election. Jeremy Corbyn also separately said that he would try to reduce existing student debt. Although we do not yet have sight of the latest Labour manifesto, it is expected to build on that of 2017 and the abolition of tuition fees is likely once again to be a central part of UK Labour’s offer to students.

Labour is the most popular party with student voters, according to polls by YouthSight. The pollsters put Labour’s vote share among student voters at 43% as we head into the general election.

Today’s policy announcement from Scottish Labour highlights the vast difference in the debate about higher education between Scotland and the rest of the country. Scottish Labour has moved on – while the rest of the UK is stuck fighting for the abolition of tuition fees.

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