Scots student loans triple as poorest students borrow more despite SNP pledge on debt

Alasdair Clark

Despite free tuition, the amount Scottish students are borrowing yearly through living expense loans has increased 120 per cent in the last decade

  • Average yearly living cost loans taken by students continues to increase
  • Report is “stark reading” for Scots students as debt “sky-rockets”, argue NUS Scotland
  • Scottish Government “proud” of targeted support for groups such as care experienced students

SCOTTISH STUDENTS borrowed more than £500 million in 2018, more than triple what was borrowed a decade earlier despite a 2007 pledge from the SNP to “dump the debt”.

A report by the Auditor General for Scotland has revealed £533 million of loans were granted to Scottish students in 2018/19, a massive increase of 185 per cent from £187 million in 2008/09.

The outstanding student loan debt burden has also doubled, from £2.5 billion in 2011 to £5.5 billion in 2019.

Students from the most deprived areas continue to leave university with more debt; analysis from the Student Awards Agency Scotland showed students from the poorest areas borrowed £5,800, compared to £4,960 by those from the least deprived areas.

Read more: ‘Privatisation’ fears: Union launches campaign against changes at Shetland college

Those from the poorest backgrounds are not totally reliant on loans, with students from a household with an annual income of less than £20,000 entitled to a bursary of £2000 alongside a loan for living expenses.

Despite a policy of free tuition, some have argued the Scottish Government should increase these non-repayable bursaries for the poorest students to ensure a perception of debt does not stop them applying to university.

Commenting on the report, NUS Scotland president Liam McCabe said: “This report from the Auditor General is stark reading for students across Scotland that student debt continues to sky-rocket.

“It is Scotland’s poorest students that are carrying most of this burden, at an unacceptable average of £23,200 in student loans. Whilst free tuition helps mitigate Scottish student debt levels – a policy that NUS Scotland will always protect and defend – this cannot be used as an excuse for continued levels of increased student debt.  

“Whilst investment in non-repayable bursaries for students most in need has increased, including the continued uptake of the care-experienced bursary, the Scottish Government must recognise this clearly does not go far enough and provide more financial support to Scotland’s students.

“They must now deliver on the recommendations of the Student Support Review – now three years on – to improve student support and realise our shared ambition of a Real Living Wage for all of Scotland’s students, helping alleviate poverty, deprivation and debt for students across the country.” 

In 2008, the average annual loan taken by students was £2420, compared to an average of £5300 in 2018/19.

The SNP pledged in 2007 to end student debt, saying an SNP-led Scottish Government would remove the burden of debt from Scottish graduates.

Read more: SNP and Greens reticent on private schools after Labour delegates back abolition

Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson, Iain Gray, said the figures showed the SNP government had failed.

“When the SNP came to power they promised to “Dump the Debt Monster”.  Instead, they slashed student grants and bursaries and looked on as students were forced into borrowing more to survive.

“Particularly worrying is the fact that it is students from the most deprived areas that are having to borrow the most, leaving them with more debt than students from more privileged areas.

“If we are to judge the First Minister on her record on education, or on her promises to students, then she has failed the test.”

Also responding to the report, Richard Lochhead, the Scottish Government’s higher education minister, said: “The reality is, in England, students amass two and a half times the debt of the average Scottish student.

“More full-time higher education students are receiving financial support as we continue to invest record amounts in students with 148,890 last year, up 0.7 per cent on the previous year. Our commitment to free tuition means that, unlike elsewhere in the UK, Scottish students studying in Scotland do not incur additional debt of up to £27,000 and average student loan debt in Scotland is the lowest in the UK.

“This, along with increased overall student numbers, widening access to students from more deprived backgrounds and improved support makes studying in Scotland a more attractive prospect.

“Improvements to the student support package include increasing bursary support for the poorest students from £1,875 to £2,000 per year, while also increasing the payments for the poorest independent students from £875 to £1,000, meaning that the students most in need can access a package of £7,750 per year through bursaries and loans.

“I am also extremely proud that in addition to these increases, we are leading the way as the only administration in the UK to offer bursary support targeted specifically for care-experienced students. Our care-experienced bursary provides £8,100 per year and will be further expanded to students aged over 26 from the next academic year.”

Image courtesy of Airpix 

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