This Government has made a firm commitment to those who want to study at college and university in Scotland - that access must be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.
We restored free education for first-time under-graduates which helps more than 120,000 students studying in Scotland every year.
Indeed the Chair of the independent review of student support, Jayne-Anne Gadhia commented: "The Scottish Government's focus on funding tuition fees for social and economic prosperity is to be commended".
More full-time higher education students than ever are receiving support – a total of 143,110 in 2016/17 – up 1.5% from 2015/16.
Meanwhile, the 2018/19 Further Education budget is at the record level of over £111 million in college bursaries, childcare and discretionary funds - a real-terms increase of 34% since 2006/07.
But I know that there is more to be done to build a fairer future for all.
And that is why the Scottish Government established the Review of Student Support.
I'd like to formally state on record my thanks to the independent Chair, Jayne-Anne Gadhia and the Review Board members.
It was essential for the Government to take some time to consider the recommendations, particularly where there are complex interactions, such as with the social security systems.
I have already welcomed the report's central premise of creating a student support system around the key values of fairness, parity and clarity.
I want Scotland's student support system to be focussed on the poorest students and this complements our wider ambitions to reduce child poverty and widen access to university.
In response to the Review, I wrote to the Convenor of the Education and Skills Committee on 9th June outlining a number of significant announcements to improve student support including:
An additional £21 million per year by the end of this parliament is to be invested in improving student support over this parliamentary term.
As part of that, investment of over £5 million will be provided in 2018/19 to increase bursaries for full-time care-experienced students to £8,100 per year, as per the Review's recommendation of funding equivalent to the Living Wage.
The Further Education care-experienced bursary will increase from £4,185 to £8,100 and the Higher Education care-experienced bursary will rise from £7,625 to £8,100 per year.
This step is of particular significance as it takes the support available to care-experienced HE & FE students to a level that is equivalent to the Real Living Wage.
Support equivalent of the Real Living Wage was, of course, a key part of the recommendations of the Review.
And we share the Review's ambition to achieve this level of support for all students and are pleased that we have been able to deliver this in the first instance for care-experienced students.
We will also invest £16 million in 2019/20 to increase further and higher education bursaries for students from the lowest income families, and expand access to them.
I am pleased to provide more detail on that today.
In order to support access to bursaries for students from the poorest families, we will raise the higher education bursary income threshold from £19,000 to £21,000 from 2019/20.
We will also increase bursary support for the poorest young students in higher education from £1,875 per year to £2,000, which combined with raising the HE bursary threshold, will benefit 13,500 students.
Further to that, we will increase bursary support for the poorest independent students in higher education from £875 per year to £1,000 which will benefit nearly 18,000 students.
These combined improvements will result in around 31,000 higher education students benefiting from an improved package of support.
For students in Further Education, we will increase bursary support so that in 2019/20, students can receive a bursary of up to £4,500 per year, benefitting over 7,000 students.
In addition to that, from 2019/20 we will ensure that all eligible further education students aged 18 and over receive a guaranteed bursary award.
This means that students will not face the 'postcode lottery' effect which NUS Scotland has long campaigned to end.
Taken together these changes also increase the total support package available to students and represents the first step towards realising the ambition of delivering the equivalent of the real Living Wage to students.
Additional funding will also be provided to support another key area - I have asked the Student Awards Agency Scotland to lead on improvements to information, advice and guidance and financial literacy.
The aspiration will be to offer a joined-up approach for further and higher education, as well as to build on the good work already underway in schools and for parents/guardians.
The ambition is a combined online portal for student finance information during the 2019/20 academic year.
I recognise that there will be some students who are unable to access advice online and I want to ensure that we provide this via other means too.
We will also seek to improve financial literacy with increased guidance on student loans, budgeting and repayment terms.
I want to ensure that students are supported, not just during their studies, but after they graduate too.
As part of our Programme for Government, we committed to raising the repayment threshold for student loans to £22,000 by the end of this Parliament.
However, we have gone further than this.
I am pleased to confirm that the loan repayment threshold will be increased to £25,000 from April 2021, reducing monthly loan repayments for thousands of Scottish graduates.
A number of system and legislative adjustments are required to practically deliver on this commitment, and Scottish Government officials are engaging with key stakeholders to undertake this work.
I will also bring forward legislation to reduce the maximum repayment period for student loans from 35 to 30 years by the end of 2018.
I will now move on to outline this Government's response to some of the other specific recommendations.
The Review reported unfair and inflexible attendance criteria in colleges.
Over recent months, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and NUS Scotland have worked closely to make improvements for this coming academic year.
The Scottish Government wants a system in place in which bursary awards are based on students' engagement in their studies, taking clear account of their personal circumstances, be that caring responsibilities, or other important factors such as mental and physical health.
NUS Scotland has stated that, "This is a huge win for students, and gives students' associations the back-up they need in challenging unfair policies at a local level".
We have also made a clear commitment to supporting college and university students' mental health and wellbeing.
In March 2018, we confirmed over £250,000 funding to NUS Scotland for the 'Think Positive' mental health project across Scotland's campuses.
We are committed to making university and college campuses places where students can live, study and research free of sexual harassment and gender based violence.
We have provided an additional £396,000 to implement a new toolkit to address gender-based violence on campus.We are also clear that there is an essential role played by college and university staff in providing valuable advice to students to access financial support.
We want to see that face-to-face support and advice continue and grow.
The Review made clear that there were a number of areas it was unable to consider and, as a result, there are some recommendations that I am committed to further investigating.
A new approach for students who are eligible to remain on social security benefits whilst studying was recommended. Negotiations on this is required with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Work has commenced in this area, with early exploratory discussions with DWP underway.
The aspiration here is clear - ensuring that no prospective student is disadvantaged or discouraged from undertaking studies due to a potential loss of social security benefits to which they are entitled whilst studying.
Following the Review's recommendation, we are also committed to reviewing all non-core and discretionary support.
We have already provided over £7 million in discretionary funding for further education students in this academic year and over £16 million will be invested for higher education students in 2018/19.
We will also look at support for part-time and disabled students and for carers.
This will take account of significant investment we already provide to support students with additional needs.
Universities receive funding from the Scottish Funding Council to ensure institution and course provision is more inclusive for students with additional needs.
A total of £2.8 million was allocated to universities in academic year 2016/17.
Colleges have access to a £50.5 million Access and Inclusion Fund to help them achieve parity of outcomes for all students at college.
The student voice is essential in this process and we will launch a consultation to hear the views of learners.
I expect this work to commence in the new academic year.
The Review called for parity across further and higher education with the introduction of loans to further education.
It gathered valuable evidence including highlighting cases of students using credit cards or payday loans to supplement income – this cannot and will not be ignored.
Independent research focussed on distinct groups of students will commence soon and report by the end of 2018.
This will provide an evidence base on demand and concerns.
I will be able to consider this recommendation further once we have a solid evidence base to underpin that consideration.
Finally, we have noted the Review's findings that students want more choice over the timing of their payments.
Higher Education students, in particular, would like twelve monthly payments rather than just over term time.
This will require engagement with the Student Loans Company and with the Department of Work and Pensions to ensure no negative consequences for students receiving social security benefits.
In summing up, I am very pleased to have been able to share with this Chamber today our commitment to improving student support for our most disadvantaged students; and to provide more detail on care-experience bursaries.
I recognise that there are a number of areas that require further work and I have outlined how these will be taken forward.
And, as I have made clear throughout this statement, any changes being introduced or considered are with the poorest students at the forefront of my thinking.
I want to ensure that any prospective student, regardless of their background, are equipped with what they need to fulfil their potential.
I absolutely agree with Jayne-Anne Gadhia when she said 'education has the power to transform lives'.
I believe that the changes we have introduced and are considering will help do just that.
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