Isles MSP Tavish Scott has called into question the Scottish government’s claim that many students in Shetland will be better off as a result of changes to the way travel expenses are paid out.
Education minister Mike Russell has written to Mr Scott suggesting that most students in Shetland would either experience no change or find themselves better off, with only around 30 expected to be worse off.
Mr Scott said he would be “amazed” if the minister’s assertion turned out to be accurate. A trio of Shetland students, Astryd Jamieson, Victoria Laurenson and Gemma Mann, last month started a petition urging the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) to overturn the planned changes. They say they will be left hundreds of pounds out of pocket, and the petition had attracted 570 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.
In his letter, Mr Russell said: “The average payment to a Shetland student in 2009/2010 was £395 compared to the Scottish average for £464. Approximately 30 students in each of Shetland and Orkney were expected to be worse off as a result of these changes, with around 400 in each either better off or experiencing no change.”
In response, Mr Scott insisted Shetlanders must not be penalised for having to live away from home during university terms. “Students who spend £464 on average per year on travel costs are, by the minister’s own admission, ‘likely to be those who resided at home in the central belt of Scotland with a high level of parental contribution and who undertook a daily commute to university’. Shetland students not only have to budget for their travel costs but they also incur rent and living expenses that those living at home do not.
“So I am asking all the students who earlier got in touch with me over these changes to get back in touch. I will be amazed if 400 Shetlanders are now better off. Our system of higher education in Scotland should not be accessible ‘to the many rather than the few’, but, rather, accessible to all, equally, fairly and on merit alone.”
He added: “It is demoralising and bureaucratic that Scottish students have to seek additional money from discretionary fund support in cases of financial hardship. If the government makes the system any more complicated and time-consuming even more young people will be put off applying to university and college. This issue is far from resolved.”
* You can sign the petition by visiting: www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/saasdiscrimination