By Wendy Steele
Questions raised in the Scottish Parliament have exposed the extent of the debt remaining from the legacy of Graduate Endowment payments.
Official figures have revealed that almost seven in ten students, who graduated under the last Labour led administration still have outstanding debt hanging over them. The figures show that out of 23,062 graduates, a mere 7,220 have repaid their Graduate Endowment.
The Graduate Endowment, brought in by the former Labour-Lib Dem coalition, had previously seen students pay towards their education after they graduated. The new figures show that overall 69% of students from this period are still struggling to repay the debt accumulated as they studied.
The scheme was eventually scrapped by the SNP Government, who described it as “backend tuition fees”. Scottish based students who attend universities north of the border are currently allowed to study without having to pay up-front or back-end tuition fees.
Despite the debt legacy, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has signalled a return to back-end fees if Scottish Labour is returned to power.
Ms Lamont’s stance has come in for heavy criticism from those in favour of free University education who highlight the pledge the Scottish Labour leader herself signed prior to the 2011 Scottish election campaign, which specifically committed her party to a “no tuition fees” policy.
As well as signing the National Union of Students Scotland’s ‘Reclaim your Voice’ campaign, the Scottish Labour Party Manifesto, which Ms Lamont helped draft, promised: “Labour will not introduce up-front or back-end tuition fees”.
Scottish Labour has now ditched the commitment, with Ms Lamont suggesting a return to the Graduate Endowment system with graduates paying some of the costs of their education after completing their studies being “the most obvious option” to claw back revenue.
However, Garry Quigley, who is student president at the University of the West of Scotland, is critical.
“Johann Lamont highlights the priorities of college funding and tackling our poor rates of widening access, and we agree that there must be a focus on educational opportunities for people from the most deprived backgrounds.
However, tuition fees are not the way to help and, in fact, would make things worse.”
The Scottish National Party has maintained a trenchant commitment to free higher education in Scotland, bringing a fresh funding package of £10 million with the aim of widening access for Scottish students hoping to tap the potential of those from poorer backgrounds.
Alex Salmond’s party have stated that they plan on opening up access for a further 2000 more university places for those who may otherwise have been denied the opportunity.
Stewart Maxwell, SNP MSP for West Scotland and convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Sport Committee, commented:
“These figures lay bare the appalling legacy the Labour Party has left on our students, with 69% of them still saddled with this debt.“
Mr Maxwell pointed to Ms Lamont’s U-turn as an example of a betrayal of Scotland’s students, comparable to that of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems south of the border – who abandoned their pre-election pledge and introduced devastatingly high tuition fees.
He added: “We have a generous package of student support and are working to deliver a minimum income of £7,000 a year for the most vulnerable students. With the average debt being kept down – and the Scottish Government delivering the best funding package in the UK, with a minimum income guarantee of £7,250 for students from the poorest backgrounds from next year – Scotland is by far the best place in the UK to be a university student.”