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Tertiary - Students celebrate as Lib Dems help secure bursary win

Party's backing ensures Parliament passes pound;30bn spending plans - including a pound;15m boost for bursaries, thanks to campaign by NUS

Party's backing ensures Parliament passes pound;30bn spending plans - including a pound;15m boost for bursaries, thanks to campaign by NUS

Student leaders were this week celebrating the success of their bursaries campaign - with a little help from the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

In the run-up to the Scottish Government's budget, Finance Secretary John Swinney accepted the party's demand for more bursary support for further education students. The deal will mean a pound;15 million increase in this and the next academic year, as well as another pound;8m for an extra 1,200 college places in 2011-12.

This critical concession to the Liberal Democrats, desperate to recover their political credit after voting at Westminster to raise university tuition fees in England, was enough to ensure that the SNP Government's pound;30 billion spending plans were passed by Parliament on Wednesday.

The campaign was orchestrated by the National Union of Students Scotland, who accused the Government of taking pound;1.7m out of the bursaries budget for up to 40,000 students.

Ministers initially pointed out that the pound;84m bursary allocation for FE students in the current academic year represented a 6.2 per cent increase on last year, and that the Government's draft spending plans protected that position.

But the NUS pointed out that, after inflation, this amounted to a real- terms cut in bursaries of pound;1.7m in 2011-12 and that, if demand stayed the same, there would be a pound;14m shortfall next year.

The unions estimate that over 32,000 letters and emails have been sent to MSPs on this issue.

During parliamentary exchanges last week, it was already obvious that the pressure was getting through to MSPs and ministers.

Green MSP Patrick Harvie referred to MSPs being "bombarded" with correspondence from concerned students.

The Conservatives' Alex Johnstone said he had received around 600 emails from his constituents in the north-east of Scotland protesting at the decline in bursaries' purchasing power.

Education Secretary Michael Russell agreed that there had to be "a better way forward."

Mr Harvie declared: "There is no better time than now to move away from a short-term, first-come-first-served approach to bursaries and move towards an approach that is based on a projection of need and an attempt to provide long-term support for students who have that need."

Mr Russell replied: "I have sympathy for the idea that we should change the way in which we provide student support. I am open to reform and to what Mr Harvie refers to in terms of finding a better way forward."

The Scottish Funding Council has had to intervene on a number of occasions to provide colleges with additional millions for student bursary and childcare support after fixing the annual grant settlement - the latest being a pound;3.5m injection last month.

"The yearly negotiations and the annual running out of money is becoming all too familiar and is not helping Scotland's students," Claire Baker, Labour's further and higher education spokesperson, said.

"Yes, I agree that we should look for better ways to do this", Mr Russell acknowledged.

A key plank in ministers' policy is that colleges and universities have agreed to provide the same number of student "core places" in the next academic year - although former Labour Finance Minister Tom McCabe expressed concern that the definition of "core" could introduce "subjectivity or elitism" if people were not funded to pursue their own interests. Mr Russell agreed that "we need to avoid elitism".

But MSPs questioned the effectiveness of maintaining places at a time when colleges were facing a 10 per cent cut in their teaching grant next year - the latest being the pound;5.7m shortfall reported by James Watt College in Greenock, which is putting 100 jobs at risk.

Labour's Claire Baker commented: "Although the number of places may be maintained, we have to question the ability of colleges to continue to provide a high-quality experience for students once they have fewer staff."

Angela Constance, Minister for Skills and Lifelong Learning, blamed the "onslaught" of cuts on the Westminster Government's pound;1.3bn reduction in its block grant to Scotland. "Colleges have huge ambition to do more of what they already do excellently, and some of that ambition might be frustrated. I regret the prospect of job losses and redundancies."

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