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The rocks already might be melting with the sun for some students

Wednesday 11-03-2015 - 09:41

This is a blog written as part of the Scottish Labour Party’s Kiltr takeover on education, access and inequality.

NUS Scotland and students right across the country have worked incredibly hard over the last few years to win the argument on tuition fees; reach broad, cross-party consensus that it’s the right policy for higher education and Scotland; and seek to settle the debate once and for all. 

That last point is particularly important, and why we warmly welcomed the Scottish Labour party’s ongoing commitment to free education—and the equally important emphasis on the necessary student support to sit alongside that—because we recognise that free tuition for Scottish-domiciled students only opens the door to fairer access for all our students; it is not, of itself, the end of our efforts to ensure that the most marginalised in our society are enabled and empowered to take advantage of our world class education system. It’s just one, very important, part of that. 

The frustration in recent years has been that the debate on tuition fees has dominated to the exclusion of almost anything else on education. Now the debate is settled we need to shift the focus to other equally important issues such as tackling student poverty, improving fair access to education, properly funding our college students, and securing better outcomes for those students who, at the moment are most likely to never benefit from our hard work and campaign successes. 

Looked-after young people; looked after and accommodated; care leavers. We have myriad terms for the children and young people who have had social workers sent by the state to be involved with their family life and upbringing. Even this terminology is a barrier, with potential students asked “Are you a care leaver?” when many are still in care, particularly for those at college. The language many have chosen to adopt is simple: I am care experienced.

We spend £2 billion a year on the system which looks after the state’s children yet their outcomes and destinations are consistently and historically atrocious. In fact, were these outcomes to be replicated across their non-care experienced peers, we would be calling it a national generational crisis. With just 4% of care experienced young people going straight from secondary school to university compared to 36% of their peers, the reality remains that if you’ve been in care you’re more likely to see the inside of a prison than the inside of a university.

We know that statistically, if you’re care experienced you’re more likely to go to college than if you’re not care experienced. That should be commended and celebrated as a sign of colleges playing a strong and vital role in their local communities. However, almost 50% of care experienced students leave their course, and college, without completing their course. We can’t talk about admissions without talking about retention and outcomes, and the statistics talk for themselves.

It’s no wonder, really. Cast your mind back to when you were 17, and think about planning your life. About running your own house; paying your own bills; applying to college or university, along with your bursary or student loan, and all the paperwork that involves; getting a part time job; having a social life. Now, imagine all of that without having a family around. Imagine being an FE student and having to mediate between your college and your local authority to establish which one—if either—is responsible for funding you, and having no money from either until it is resolved. 

Imagine applying for SAAS funding and being asked about your parental income when you haven’t seen your parents in 12 years. In 2012, when NUS Scotland exposed the shambolic process for applying to SAAS for HE students—it sparked a government review. It’s 2015 and FE students are telling us that they weren’t being awarded their bursary in the days before the Christmas holiday, in many cases because the information they’ve been asked for simply doesn’t exist.

We have seen some exceptionally strong rhetoric, and action, on these issues in the last few years—from the Scottish Government and Parliament, community groups and charities, and individuals who recognise that social justice starts can only ever begin when we start listening to and supporting the most marginalised and disadvantaged in our society. But we must do more. For these students, and those behind them with the desire and potential to follow in their footsteps, the rocks might just already be melting with the sun.

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