Monday, 18 June 2007

SNP and the abolition of endowment

Comrade Neil Bennet comments on the recent decision by the SNP to abolish the £2200 endowment fee for students in Scotland.

Students and socialists were (quite rightly) celebrating this week, with the news that the SNP executive is going to fulfil its election promise to scrap the £2,289 ‘graduate endowment’ fee levied by the Labour-Lib Dem coalition in the first term of the Scottish Parliament.

The system, set up in 2001, was essentially a compromise – put in place to allow the Lib Dems to claim they had fulfilled their own election commitment to scrap student fees – when really they had done nothing of the sort. Rather they had simply reduced them and altered the timing of their payment. Oh, and they changed the name!

While we should welcome the SNP move to drop the ‘graduate tax’, as it has come to be known by some – we should be a little bit more concerned about the quiet dropping of the nationalist’s more radical policies on student finance. Only two months ago, during the election campaign, the SNP were loudly proclaiming not only their promise to get rid of the endowment – but also to scrap all outstanding student debt and replace student loans with maintenance grants. In other words they were close to promising free university education – precisely what the student movement and the left have long campaigned for. It is undoubtedly policies like this – as well as anti-war posturing and the framing of the election debate around independence – that drew so many left-wing voters to the SNP in May. As Labour education spokesperson Hugh Henry (correctly, but with astonishing hypocrisy) described the move – “[It is] meagre and disingenuous” and “tinkers at the edge of what the SNP promised to students”.

Average student debt in Scotland upon graduation in 2005 was £7,561, before taking into account the endowment, and over a quarter owed more than £12,000 on top of the back-ended fee payment. These figures will be likely to have increased over the subsequent two years. So while the reduction in student debts by just over £2000 is very good news indeed for current and future students in Scotland , those graduating before 2008 are left out in the cold. What’s more the promise of free education is once again a long way off – and the spectre of debt will continue to hang over all but the wealthiest of potential students for a long time to come.

Ostensibly the more radical policies are being put to the side because the SNP – as a minority government – couldn’t hope to push such expensive policies through parliament – they would need the Lib Dem’s support, and they are only willing to go so far. However it is very telling that the nationalist administration aren’t even willing to have the battle – that they value proving themselves capable of maintaining a stable government far more than they value any of their policies – from student finance to independence.

What is interesting however is that they would choose to push for a popular, ‘left-wing’ policy so early in the life of the new parliament. It could be a promising sign – or it could be a little respite before a neo-liberal storm is unleashed – think New Labour and the National Minimum Wage in 1999 – a token progressive gesture to the – and we all know what was to follow.

In the meantime the left and the students’ movement in Scotland have been given an opportunity – we have been given an aim and a target. The government has made us promises that it doesn’t intend to keep. Now it’s up to us to force them to change their minds.


Charlie Marks said...

From where i am this looks to be good news. I think the SNP's commitment to neoliberalism will depend on external political and economic factors as well as internal ones.

I still haven't the foggiest what the Scottish Greens are like, though I watched one of their two MSPs go apeshit during the debate on Trident -- it was hilarious. Ah, the wonders of the parlaiment channel. nowt but fucking politicans...

Back to the topic, I am optimistic about the outlook for Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. On Saturday the Daily Mail had a big headline about how outrageous the inequalities in NHS provision (the freebies we English don't get). But the payoff was that its bad that the english are envious because they'll want what the scots have and really, we can't afford it... Haven;t we heard that one before...

Southpawpunch said...

It will be interesting to see, especially if there's more where this came from, if policy changes like this could have an effect on England.

There's already quite a few English people, especially near Wales thinking why can't we get free prescriptions as they do in Cardiff.

Maybe time for the SNP to set up English branches to capitalise on such goodwill!

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