Students campaigning against cuts to travel expenses have pointed to official government statistics showing that education minister Mike Russell has “got his facts and figures wrong” in claiming those from remote areas will not be any worse off.
Just weeks before the start of the current academic year, the government announced that the maximum travel assistance available was being reduced to £350 – and that only applies to those receiving the maximum student loan.
For Shetland students that assistance is supposed to cover three return trips between the isles and the Mainland in each academic year. Mr Russell previously claimed that the overwhelming majority of Shetlanders would be better off or experience no change under the new system.
But the students have now obtained official figures showing that in 2010/11 some 63 per cent of Scottish students received £350 or more in travel expenses. For the 27,000 students who claimed more than £350 last year, the average payout was £635 – which the students say makes a mockery of Mr Russell’s previous statements.
A total of 638 people have signed a petition calling for the changes to be reversed. Victoria Laurenson, one of the three Shetland students involved in the campaign, said: “I’d just like to reinforce how vital the travel expenses were to us and ask more people to sign the petition. The figures show that tens of thousands of students within Scotland are now losing out under changes made to the system.
“[Shetland MSP] Tavish [Scott] and [Northern Isles MP] Alistair [Carmichael] are both still supporting the campaign and have written again to Mike Russell, who has clearly got his facts and figures wrong in regards to the travel expenses for island and rural students.”
Last year the government spent £20 million on travel expenses further and higher education students in Scotland.
Mr Scott said that meant finding the resources to ensure island students are not “discriminated against” was “not a big ask”. He said: “None of us understand the figures that the education secretary produced.
“It’s clear that the change introduced this autumn to travel expenses has made life financially worse for Shetland students, and that’s why I’m looking to the government to review that position and recognise that students travelling south to the Scottish mainland for further and higher education do need support for the inevitable travel expenses they face.”
* You can view and sign the students’ petition by visiting: www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/saasdiscrimination