THE annual uptake of student loans has almost tripled since the SNP came to power on a promise to abolish student debt, according to official figures.

The Auditor General for Scotland said £533m of loans were authorised in 2018/19, an increase of 185 per cent on the £187m of debt created in 2008/09.

Since 2011 alone, the total outstanding loan debt has grown from £2.5bn to £5.5bn.

Of the 654,000 individuals who have borrowed from the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) since 2000, around 500,000 still have debt to repay.

The average annual loan has grown from £2420 per person in 2008/9 to £5300 in 2018/19, with students from deprived areas borrowing more than those from the most affluent areas.

On average, poorer students borrowed £5800 last year compared to £4960 for the better off.

The Scottish Government calculates only 62p of every pound in debt will ever be repaid.

Labour said it showed the First Minister had failed on education.

At the 2007 Holyrood election, the SNP appealed to student voters and their families with a campaign to “dump the debt”.

Its manifesto said: “Scotland can be smarter. It’s time for more opportunities for young Scots with smaller class sizes and it’s time to dump student debt.”

It said an SNP government’s job would be “removing the burden of the debt repayments owed to the Student Loans Company by Scottish domiciled and resident graduates”.

However the promise was rapidly dropped by Alex Salmond’s minority administration when the costs proved exorbitant, around £2bn.

In a new briefing paper, the Auditor General said the ever-growing size of student loans posed questions for the Scottish Government.

Student loans of up to £6750 a year are currently available to college and university students to help them cover the cost of living while studying.

They are repaid with interest once people start earning more than a set salary threshold.

For 2019/20, the threshold is £18,935, and the former students repay 9 per cent of their income above this threshold each year.

Any debt still outstanding after 30 years is written off.

The Scottish Government has committed to raising the payment threshold to £25,000 from April 2021, meaning a drop in the debt likely to be repaid.

As a result, the Government last year recorded a £590m “impairment” against the outstanding debt, which is technically accounted for as a financial asset.

However the Treasury provides ring-fenced funding to meet this cost.

Auditor General Caroline Gardner said: “Student loans are only one part of the package of student support but they represent a significant investment by the Scottish Government.

“These loans need to be repaid in full by either the students or the state, so it’s important that the figures are clearly reported to ensure the costs are sustainable and the impact on individual students is understood.”

Scottish Labour Education Spokesperson Iain Gray MSP said: "When the SNP came to power they promised to 'Dump The Debt Monster'. 

"Instead they slashed student grants and bursaries and looked on as students were forced into borrowing more to survive. The facts speak for themselves.

"Student debt has soared to £5.5bn, more than double what it was in 2011, and the average individual debt level on entry into repayment has more than doubled.

“Particularly worrying is the fact that it is students from the most deprived areas that are having to borrow the most, leaving them with more debt than students from more privileged areas.

“If we are to judge the First Minister on her record on education, or on her promises to students, then she has failed the test.”

Tory MSP Liz Smith said: “Scotland’s future prosperity and the success of its young people depends on a thriving university sector.

“The level of student support matters so much to the decision made by our young people and that is why so many of them are angry that student loan debt has skyrocketed despite the SNP’s promises to eradicate it.

“It is high time the SNP Government reviewed its higher education funding policies to ensure the sector is much more sustainable in the future.”

Liberal Democrat MSP Beatrice Wishart added: "The SNP were elected on a commitment to replace loans with grants and to 'dump the debt'.

"These statistics confirm the very opposite has happened. Student debt has soared on the SNP's watch while bursaries and grants have been decimated, hitting people from lower-income backgrounds hardest.

“While students are striving to get an education, they are facing major question marks over how to support themselves.

“The Scottish Government must repair the system of bursaries and grants, helping students secure a minimum income level without forcing them into more debt.”

NUS Scotland President Liam McCabe said: “This report from the Auditor General is stark reading for students across Scotland that student debt continues to sky-rocket.

"It is Scotland’s poorest students that are carrying most of this burden, at an unacceptable average of £23,200 in student loans.

"Whilst free tuition helps mitigate Scottish student debt levels – a policy that NUS Scotland will always protect and defend – this cannot be used as an excuse for continued levels of increased student debt.  

"Whilst investment in non-repayable bursaries for students most in need has increased, including the continued uptake of the care-experienced bursary, the Scottish Government must recognise this clearly does not go far enough and provide more financial support to Scotland’s students."

SNP higher education Minister Richard Lochhead said: “The reality is, in England, students amass two and a half times the debt of the average Scottish student.

“More full-time higher education students are receiving financial support as we continue to invest record amounts in students with 148,890 last year, up 0.7% on the previous year. 

"Our commitment to free tuition means that, unlike elsewhere in the UK, Scottish students studying in Scotland do not incur additional debt of up to £27,000 and average student loan debt in Scotland is the lowest in the UK.

“This, along with increased overall student numbers, widening access to students from more deprived backgrounds and improved support makes studying in Scotland a more attractive prospect.

“Improvements to the student support package include increasing bursary support for the poorest students from £1,875 to £2,000 per year, while also increasing the payments for the poorest independent students from £875 to £1,000, meaning that the students most in need can access a package of £7,750 per year through bursaries and loans.

“I am also extremely proud that in addition to these increases, we are leading the way as the only administration in the UK to offer bursary support targeted specifically for care-experienced students.

"Our care-experienced bursary provides £8,100 per year and will be further expanded to students aged over 26 from the next academic year.”