Yesterday there was an Opposition day debate on Education Maintenance Grants. At first glance, this might seem like an issue that shouldn’t affect a Scottish MP – education is, after all, devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
That’s what the Speaker of the house has decided, making this piece of legislation part of EVEL (English Votes for English Laws) – although in this case it is an English and Welsh law. However, many English and Welsh students come to Universities in Scotland and become our constituents. For us here in Edinburgh East, a constituency that takes in the University of Edinburgh, students make up a large section of the community.
At the University of Edinburgh, 1242 English students are in receipt of maintenance grants and 67% of those students have a total household income of less than £25,000, so qualify for the highest rate. That doesn’t included student from England and Wales, attending Queen Margaret Uni, or Napier, or Heriot Watt. There will be numerous constituents living in Edinburgh East in the future who will be relying on either taking up more part time work or increasing their debts. For students starting University this summer, the UK Government plans to scrap these grants completely.
It is unacceptable that students like these will likely graduate with a debt of up to £53,000 rather than the current £40,500 because of the changes. In my opinion, £40,000 was already far too high a debt figure for those starting out in life. This doesn’t help them, or us. Attending university should be based on ability to learn, not the ability to pay. And once a student has graduated, they need to be able to contribute to their local community without being weighed down by a debt they may never be able to pay off.
We should be in no doubt that these decisions will have layers of consequences. On an individual level, they will result in lives less fulfilled and opportunities forgone. On a community level, people will see this pathway out of poverty being barricaded before their eyes. Most of all, the effects will be felt on a national level. How many surgeons, architects, doctors and journalists will not emerge because of the denial of this opportunity? Now let’s compare this to a Scottish student attending one of our world leading universities in this city. Unlike in the rest of the UK, Higher Education for Scottish students in Scotland is free. Every year, free tuition saves over 120,000 undergraduate students in Scotland from accruing potential additional debt of up to £27,000. And as long as there is an SNP government in Scotland, that won’t change.
Furthermore, the Scottish Government is retaining maintenance grants (known as bursaries here). Indeed, bursaries increased in 2014-15 (up 4.9% since 2013-14).
The Government seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that students are all rich, and that they benefit from their education so much that it is okay to charge them whatever they want to. That is not the case. A small minority do extremely well and become rich, and if the Government want them to pay, they should introduce a progressive taxation system whereby people pay more when they start to earn those high wages. Instead, they are cutting taxes for the highest earners in our communities.
Nowhere is this thrown into sharper relief than in the situation of nurses and midwives. The abolition of grants for nurses and midwives will not only penalise the people who want to contribute to our national health service but undermine our NHS itself. Not for the first time, I am so pleased that in Scotland we have a Scottish Government who stand between the young people in that country and the malintent of this.