University students from Shetland have clubbed together to protest against changes to the way travel expenses are paid out, accusing student loans body Students Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) of “discrimination” against students from islands and rural areas.
Traditionally, SAAS has reimbursed students for their travel expenses upon provision of receipts, provided that they chose the cheapest available transport option. But it has now decided to bundle the expenses within annual loan payments – which the students say will leave Shetlanders and others who have to travel long distances to and from university badly out of pocket, possibly by several hundred pounds a year.
The highest amount of travel assistance available each year is now £350 for those who are eligible to receive the maximum loan. Those who claim smaller loans will receive a smaller travel subsidy.
Students Astryd Jamieson, Victoria Laurenson and Gemma Mann have set up an e-petition protesting against the cuts, which has already garnered nearly 150 signatures. By Monday afternoon a Facebook page had attracted support from 299 individuals and organisations.
The petition states: “For 2011-2012, students will no longer have their travel expenses reimbursed. Instead, travel costs are based on family income and are included in your loan. This does not consider your location, is discrimination against islanders/rural students and doesn’t begin to cover our travel costs!”
Ms Jamieson, 21, from Tingwall, is in the third year of a psychology degree at Edinburgh University. She said the cost of coming home three times in the current academic year would be a minimum of £450, quite possibly more. She is furious at the changes and wants the government to have a rethink.
“SAAS says this method puts in an extra £10 million for students,” she told this newspaper. “But anything I get will be far less than what I got before, and this will be the same for the majority of island and rural students.
“When I spoke to someone from SAAS, they said they couldn’t guarantee I would get £350, but I would get ‘something’ at least. My travel this year will cost at least £450, not allowing for the fact that I often have to book trains etc. last minute, as exam timetables aren’t released until then.”
The Shetland Times has been unable to speak to anyone from SAAS. When Ms Laurenson contacted the agency last week to complain, she was told that there was “no scope to take individual circumstances into account”.
An SAAS representative told her: “With the new travel rules, while most students will be better off, a few like you are going to be worse off. The only people who will receive travel expenses from session 2011-2012 are AHP [Allied Health Professional] students and nursing student[s] while on placement.”
Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael is backing the students’ campaign, while Shetland MSP Tavish Scott has said he will urge education minister Mike Russell to “think again”. Mr Scott described the changes as “unfair” and said they placed an extra burden on students living in remote areas.
• You can sign the petition online at http://www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/saasdiscrimination and the Facebook page’s address is http://www.facebook.com/pages/S-A-A-S-Discriminating-Against-Islanders/246972708680944?sk=wall