Coming less than two years after a referendum that galvanised and invigorated democratic debate, with the historic decision to grant 16 and 17 year olds the vote, and at a time of greater devolution to Scotland, this election presents an opportunity to mould the fairer the society we want to see, and our place in it.
While it’s right that we continue to protect the principle and practice of free education in Scotland, recognising the role higher education as a core public and social good, free education can’t just be about the price tag. For NUS Scotland, the unifying theme of our election priorities is ensuring the necessary support is available to students. It’s about securing a system that enables any student, regardless of background or circumstance, to access education, and enables them to complete their studies and achieve their full potential.
If we take some of our most in-need students – those in further education – they’re also the ones most forced to get by on paltry amounts, if they receive anything at all. Currently, they don’t have access to a guaranteed level of income like their higher education counterparts, instead relying on a discretionary, postcode lottery. This leaves students unsure whether they’ll have money to live off, let alone how much, when they consider studying at college. Some arrive at college to find that the support level simply isn’t enough, others arrive to find there’s no money left in the pot, forcing them to either go without or drop out. This is a huge waste of talent for Scotland and an unnecessary hurdle at the very start of a potential career or path to university.
If we really want to break down barriers to education, this needs to be our next target. We want to see parties committing to an entitlement for all further education students, guaranteeing a minimum level of income and ensuring that regardless of where you study in Scotland, you know you’ll be supported, and you’ll know how much support you’ll receive before you even get there.
More fundamentally, we need to seriously look at the whole student system and what it provides for students right across the year. Not every student is in a position to be supported by family members in the summer, and many have their own dependents. As our fair access rates continue to improve, the range of backgrounds and needs of students will, rightly, diversify, but the financial support they receive still treats them as a single group. We want to see parties outlining how they’ll ensure students, particularly those who have no ‘safety net’ over the summer, aren’t hung out to dry.
But at the same time, we need looking beyond just financial support offered to students and start looking at other support provided, like welfare support. Students face significant pressures, both academically and personally, which can have a significant impact on their mental health, yet too often, the system lets students with mental health problems down.
We see students having to organise support when they start a new academic year or new institution, students have to move between different NHS health boards at home and at their term time address, and sometimes institutions simply don’t having the capacity to support a student. While these services are provided at a local level, we think that this national problem needs a national solution – and one that goes beyond individual universities and colleges. We need to see commitments to bring together a range of agencies and institutions to look at what provision is in place for students, and how this can be improved.
We can be proud of our education system in Scotland, but we can’t be complacent. During the next parliament, we’ll face challenges, but we also have a real chance to build on our achievements in areas like widening access, creating a system where anyone in Scotland can access college or university and is supported to stay there. That’s an opportunity I’m excited about, and one that all of us – students, unions, community organisations, and more – shouldn’t let slip away.
Vonnie Sandlan is NUS Scotland President for 2015/16, having previously served as NUS Scotland women’s officer and President of Langside College Students’ Association.