Scottish government spending on student bursaries and grants was cut by more than £35 million last year, forcing learners to take out larger loans to fund their way through university, it has emerged.
The 35.5 per cent drop in the budget for bursaries and grants, down from £100.6 million in 2012-13 to £64.9 million in 2013-14, followed the Holyrood government’s decision to restrict the numbers of eligible students and the amount they could claim.
In April 2013, the maximum amount available per person under the Young Students’ Bursary was reduced from £2,640 to £1,750, and the household income threshold for the full payment was reduced from £19,310 to £17,000.
The impact of the change is revealed in a report from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland. This shows that, while the total number of students who received a bursary or grant dropped by only 1.3 per cent during 2013-14, to 53,450, the average payment per student plummeted by 34.9 per cent, to £1,210.
At the same time, Scottish government spending on student loans to cover living costs soared by 68.9 per cent, to £429.6 million, with the size of the average loan increasing by 61.4 per cent, from £3,110 to £5,020. The number of students taking out loans grew by 4.9 per cent, to 85,655.
The government argues that reduced spending on bursaries protects Scotland’s policy of free tuition, and that the total amount of support through course fees, bursaries, grants and student loans increased by more than a quarter, to £734.7 million.
But Liam McArthur, the Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman, warned efforts to widen access were being “undermined” by the threat of debt.
“This shows that the SNP government’s underhand switch from grants to loans has saddled some of Scotland’s poorest students with higher levels of debt,” he said. “The SNP’s flagship manifesto pledge to ‘dump student debt’ is now sunk.”
A separate report published by the Scottish Funding Council suggests efforts to increase enrolment in higher education from the country’s poorest communities have stalled, with the participation rate among the most deprived 16 to 30-year-olds dropping to 39 per cent in 2012-13, down 0.1 per cent year-on-year and 0.7 per cent lower than the 2010-11 figure. However, this compares with a rate of 34.9 per cent in 2006-07.
The SFC report reveals the overall higher education participation rate across all 16 to 30-year-olds fell by 1.4 per cent during 2012-13, to 54.7 per cent. A drop in the number of Scottish students attending universities elsewhere in the UK following the introduction of higher tuition fees appears not to have been compensated for by a significantly increased enrolment at institutions in their home country.
Michael Russell, the Scottish education secretary, said there was “no room for complacency” and that he was “committed to making higher education attainable for those from more deprived backgrounds and communities”.
“The figures published today show that we have stood by our pledge to students to continue to oppose fees by providing free tuition and sufficient support to make sure that higher education remains accessible,” said Mr Russell. “We listened to the National Union of Students when designing the new student support package to help students to access the funds needed to take up places at our universities.”
A third report from the Scottish government reveals 90.3 per cent of students who left the country’s universities in 2013 were employed or carrying out further study within six months, compared with 89.4 per cent the previous year.