This is a guest post by Chris Duffy. Chris is a third year PhD student and long-standing member of the SNP who is currently serving as SNP Students secretary.
The SNP has always been a party with its roots deep in the educational institutions of Scotland, from founding of the first precursors of the party at the University of Glasgow through to the political awakening that many of our top names had in their time at our various great institutions. Devolution came at just the right time for Scottish Higher and Further Education, just as Westminster was imposing tuition fees and crippling debt Scotland had a chance to do things differently – the first Scottish Executive abolished tuition fees. When the SNP took office in 2007 they continued to do well by students, abolishing the graduate endowment fee and later protecting the student support package to ensure that it’s one of the most generous for undergraduates anywhere in the UK. All of this was achieved by 2011.
Since then the needs of students have taken a back seat in policy announcements which is why in April we were glad to see once again an extensive list of commitments to improve the lives of students. However this must be welcomed with a note of caution. The student section of the manifesto opened, as is so often the case with the SNP, by declaring that tuition will remain free in Scotland. This of course is good news, but the last time a first-time Scottish undergraduate paid a tuition fee in Scotland was in 2008. The 16, 17, 18 and 19 year olds this is mostly aimed at had barely started primary school then, for them tuition has always been free. To win the votes of prospective and current students we have to offer them things that will change their lives for the better, not maintain the only reality they’ve ever known.
It would be unfair to ignore the improvements that we do offer students, the pledge to expand the student support package, targeted action to support for estranged students, protection for benefit entitlements among others, but too often the detail is lacking. It has been promised that the support package will be expanded to the equivalent of the real living wage over the next three years – but in cash terms this is never explored. Are students to be supported at the rate of a full time job, are they to be supported over summer, will the parental income means testing for additional support continue to apply? All questions that students will want an answer to.
Then there is the commitment to review postgraduate funding, perhaps the unloved sibling of undergraduates. We could discuss at length the failings that currently exist here from tuition fees not being completely covered to the living support being woefully inadequate and out of date but suffice it to say much work is needed. Again it was welcome to see it in the manifesto but raises yet more questions, is this a move to place undergraduates and postgraduates on the same support scale, or will it just see the same system continue with increased funding available? This pledge has left a lot of room to do great things, or indeed nothing.
This problem of welcome commitments without any real detail ran through the student section of the manifesto; a review of the student accommodation sector without saying what is under review, a student mental health action that doesn’t commit to the extra staff needed to clear waiting times, and a digital poverty fund to be put in the hands of Universities and Colleges thereby baking in a postcode lottery to access from the start.
The policy commitments for students are some of the boldest we’ve seen in many years but given the policy wilderness students have been in for the last decade that is not surprising. We could only wonder if students were actually consulted on the manifesto before it was published in April, because it could only be described as a manifesto written by people who know of the existence of students’ issues and not necessarily about the issues.
These policies have given the party a good jumping off point for the current parliament on what to do to help students, but only time will tell if they are enacted as fully and properly as they need be. Between now and the end of this parliament, students need to do a lot of lobbying to make sure that, for once, they are heard.