Until John Swinney reverses his own budget cuts he will be unable to give poorer students access to university, says Iain Gray
The First Minister has told us that education is her priority, and that her “defining mission” is to close the attainment gap. She told parliament this week that one measure of that would be that young people from the richest families and the poorest families should have the same chance of going to university.
To show she is serious, she appointed her “biggest hitter”, John Swinney to the education portfolio. Unfortunately John is part of the problem.
One of the first reports to land on his new desk was from the Sutton Trust. It shows that in Scotland 18-year-olds from the most advantaged areas are more than four times more likely to go to university than those from the least advantaged areas. This gap is much worse in Scotland than in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.
The report acknowledges that there has been improved access to higher education for disadvantaged students in Scotland, but looking deeper at the figures reveals that 90 per cent of this is students going to college to study HNC or HND courses, and not students going to university.
These figures are dismal, but so was the Scottish Government response. John Swinney tried everything to deny the plain fact that successive SNP governments have failed poorer students.
While Alex Salmond was unveiling monuments to his “no tuition fees” policy he was quietly erecting other barriers to university access.
Maintenance grants for students from poorer families were slashed, student debt, which the SNP promised to abolish, was instead doubled, and education budgets were cut. The effect has been to keep disadvantaged young people out of university.
The self-same John Swinney, now claiming to be the champion of wider access, passed a budget a few months ago which cut universities by over three per cent. That means student numbers will not rise, and disadvantaged students will continue to be squeezed out. Worst of all, there were 700 or so extra places funded specifically for disadvantaged students. Mr Swinney’s budget abolished those.
This report lays bare the mountain the SNP now has to climb. But it is a mountain of their own making, and Mr Swinney’s efforts to open up universities are being undertaken with both hands tied behind his back – by his own budget. He can appoint as many Commissioners for Widening Access as he likes, but until he is willing to use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to see maintenance grants restored and budget cuts reversed, the SNP is going to keep on failing disadvantaged young people when it comes to university access.
Iain Gray is Labour MSP for East Lothian