Scotland Provides a Blueprint for Improving UK Education

30/08/2012 10:31 BST | Updated 29/10/2012 09:12 GMT

The headline in Scotland has always been that we've kept tuition fees off the table, and there is no sign of the political winds changing that. But for NUS Scotland, putting money in students' pockets to keep them in education has always been of just as much importance as fighting tuition fees.

For several years now we have campaigned for an increase to the financial support available to Scottish students to end a situation where, in effect, students were being legislated to live below the poverty line.

The good news is that this is about to change. From September 2013 the 120,000 Scottish students studying higher education courses in colleges and universities will have access to the best financial package anywhere in the UK. Those from the poorest backgrounds will have access to £7,250 a year in grants and loans to help cover their accommodation and living costs, whilst every single student now will be able to access a £4,500 SAAS loan.

There is further good news with the announcement that from 2013 part-time students from poorer backgrounds will no longer have to pay fees. This ends a clear injustice whereby part-time students, who are more likely to be from poorer backgrounds, were being asked to meet the cost of their own education, unlike their full-time counterparts.

In addition to tuition-fee education and the best system of student support, Scotland's students still receive EMA and we are protecting places for college and university students.

Additionally, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) gives us the basis of a flexible system in which students can change how they study when their circumstances change. And the Scottish Government sees the value in work-based study and is investing in apprenticeships.

For NUS Scotland, all of this is about something much more important - making access to education fair. Despite all of the good news, Scotland's rates of widening access are still worse than those in other parts of the UK. Indeed, in Scotland's most elite universities there are over 16 students from the most privileged backgrounds for every single student from the most deprived.

Our goal is to seek a situation where nothing other than an individual's potential determines how they access education and where Scotland's universities give a true reflection of Scotland's society.

No tuition fees and sufficient student support are some of the building blocks for fair access to education. Now we have the once-in-a-generation opportunity as a nation to take a massive step forward in improving access, as our recent report Unlocking Scotland's Potential shows. The ball is now very much in the universities' court: we aren't saying that they can do everything to improve Scotland's access rates, but university principals have the responsibility to do a great deal more.

The question has been raised whether Scotland could afford to abolish fees and to sufficiently fund students. The Government here has now shown both Scotland and the rest of the UK that it is possible to do both.

But I'd go one further - if we are going to be a successful, equitable, social democratic country and successfully reboot our economy, we can't afford not to do both. That's the value of education and why educational investment should be at the core of every government's economic and social plans.

It's not all rosy here in Scotland - there's a huge amount of concern for what is happening to colleges education in Scotland. A major reorganisation is taking place, but that masks the real worries about the effect of deep cuts by the Scottish Government.

The system of tuition fees that students from the rest of the UK face if they want to come to Scotland is unfair and, with degree costs of up to £36,000, goes beyond even the limits of what the UK coalition have done in England. And there is no shelter, even here, as Westminster's austerity budgets weigh down on youth unemployment.

The Scottish Government's announcements on increased student support were a further sign that education policy across the British Isles is becoming increasingly divergent.

In other parts of the UK, turning attention to what is being achieved here in Scotland, can only be a good thing for students. And it wouldn't be just students who benefitted if the Scottish system became the education blueprint for the rest of the UK.

The fact is that if the political will is there, a fair, flexible and accessible education system is not some sort of utopian luxury that the government cannot afford. It is just the opposite - the education system in Scotland is becoming the core of a social and economic development plan, something that the Westminster Government cannot afford to ignore.

For more information about NUS Scotland's fair access campaign or download a copy of our report Unlocking Scotland's Potential: Promoting Fairer Access to Higher Education, please visit our website.