Colleges have hired Scotland's leading student politician to help them strengthen their policy on student support.
James Alexander, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, has joined the staff of the Association of Scotland's Colleges, as it continues its campaign to replace the current loans system with means-tested bursaries. His focus will be on the 28,000 Higher National students in further education who are currently excluded from college bursary support and have to apply for means-tested loans.
The ASC points out that these students, who live in households with an average income of less than pound;18,000, have to rely on a complex system where they juggle with funding from up to nine sources, such as grants, loans, child tax credits, working family tax credits, and income support if working part-time.
Bursaries and other financial support for FE students, totalling pound;72 million, are administered and paid out directly by the colleges to their students. Students on HE courses in colleges, like those in universities, come under the Student Awards Agency for Scotland.
Howard McKenzie, acting chief executive of the ASC, says the bursary system should be extended to include all college students. "We want to ensure that the policies for student support encompass the whole picture," he said. "We want to move from loans to college bursaries which support our students locally to harness all the financial support available. Local advice, local action for the local community. This will be a key campaign area for the colleges in the coming year.
"It is essential that the system of student support is reformed to boost the number of skilled people entering the job market at technician level. Our economy is crying out for people at this level and, to achieve this, we must have a fair system which recognises further and higher education students equally.
"We see the best way of doing so as replacing the current system of student loans with a fair and affordable system of means-tested bursaries administered by the local college, which will enable students to dovetail into the benefits system, council tax relief, paid employment and other income streams."
Mr Alexander said: "I look forward to getting stuck into the debate on student support once again. Often it is too focused on university students and, while they are important, the students of Scotland's colleges should be of equal consideration to government ministers."
Sue Pinder, convener of the ASC principals' forum, who heads James Watt College in Greenock, said: "The Scottish Government wants education to be based on the ability to learn and not pay. Scotland's colleges are behind that ambitious goal, and will work to help the Government achieve that."
The Government intends to launch a consultation paper later in the year on proposals to replace student loans with "fair and affordable" means-tested grants.
l New support for some students, announced in December, came into effect last week. It will be provided in the form of a pound;500 grant for around 20,000 part-time students in higher education earning pound;18,000 a year or less. Maureen Watt, the Schools and Skills Minister, said this was the first step in moving from loans to grants, "which highlights our determination to ease the financial pressures on learners". The cost of the scheme will be pound;12 million in the coming academic year and pound;13 million in each of the following two years. The grants will be administered through Individual Learning Accounts Scotland (www.ila scotland.org.uk).