A government agency deleted claims that cuts to grants for low income students were linked to protecting free higher education after an intervention by Scottish Ministers.
The Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) erased the politically toxic extract from an official report after being “made aware” of the “error” by the SNP Government.
Labour MSP Daniel Johnson accused Ministers of trying to “hide the truth” about its flagship university policy.
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The Government restored free higher education in 2008 after scrapping a graduate endowment fee introduced by the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive.
However, critics have argued that the no fee policy disproportionately benefits middle class students and has been maintained by cutting the funding for maintenance grants for poorer students.
In 2013/14, the student support system was changed by reducing the amount spent on grants and increasing the reliance on loans.
The SAAS, which provides support to students in higher education, produced a report on the subject in October and confirmed that changes had been made to “simplify” the support system.
It added: “This meant that the types and value of support students received changed substantially from 2012-13, within the aim of protecting free tuition.”
“For example, the total amount of support provided in bursaries and grants reduced by over a third, offset by a substantial increase in authorisations for student loans…”
Johnson asked the Government on November 1st whether replacing grants with loans was carried out with "the aim of protecting free tuition”.
In response, Higher Education Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville stated: “No. The recently published Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) statistical publication contained an inaccurate statement. We apologise for this inaccuracy and will revise the relevant entry in the report.”
The Government contacted the SAAS eight days after Johnson tabled his question and the “protecting free tuition” line was subsequently taken out.
A footnote in the rewritten report now states: “A factual inaccuracy in this line was identified and updated in November 2016.”
Johnson said: “Scottish Labour supports free tuition, but we also support grants for students from low income families, which the SNP have cut.”
“The SAAS report said what we all know to be the case: grants have been replaced by loans for Scotland’s poorest students, and this was used to pay for the free tuition fee policy. Now the government have been reduced to trying to rewrite the report to hide the truth.”
“That truth is that the SNP, who pledged to abolish student debt have instead saddled more students with more debt.”
Lucy Blackburn, a researcher at Edinburgh University and education specialist, said of the cuts to the student support budget:
“The whole cut was applied to the cash used to provide grants for lower-income students. As a result, these fell in value by around 40%. The much larger amount spent by the government on the across-the-board subsidy for tuition fees was left untouched. To say that tuition fee funding was prioritised for protection is to do no more than describe what happened. It’s very hard to see how that choice can be explained or understood separately from the government’s desire to protect free tuition.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “SAAS have been made aware of the error contained within the report and have amended the report text to reflect this.”
A spokesperson for the SAAS pointed the Herald to the Minister’s parliamentary answer and the footnote in the revised document.