Question from Gavin Brown MSP to Mike Russell MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Education

The following exchange between Gavin Brown MSP and Mike Russell MSP (Cabinet Secretary for Education, Culture and Lifelong Learning) occurred at ‘Themed Questions’.  (Version from official record available here…)

Gavin Brown (Lothian) (Con):

17. To ask the Scottish Executive what discussions it has had with law students regarding the removal of student loan support for those studying for the diploma in professional legal practice.

Unfortunately, the wording of the question didn’t really bring out the issue that it was the absence of living costs support that was the issue.  To be fair, I think this may be partly because the question had to be submitted a week in advance, and before I met Gavin Brown earlier this week.  However, Mike Russell’s answer suggests  he is unaware of any engagement from us; he just re-iterates the line about fee loans…

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning (Michael Russell): We have held no discussions with law students regarding the removal of student loan support for those studying for the diploma in legal practice, because that is not being proposed.

From the 2012-13 academic year, we will introduce a new loan scheme—the post-graduate tuition fee loan—to replace the existing postgraduate student allowances scheme. It will be available to all eligible Scotland-domiciled and European Union students undertaking eligible courses, including those studying for the diploma in legal practice.

So, no further forward!  Each question comes with a supplementary…

Gavin Brown: I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer. The diploma is compulsory for anybody who wants to practice law in Scotland, so there is great concern among law students throughout Scotland. Given what the cabinet secretary has just said, will he agree to meet representatives of the University of Edinburgh Law Students’ Council to discuss matters in more detail?

I think Gavin Brown was a bit non-plussed by the lack of recognition of an issue, so unfortunately the supplementary was a bit of a damp squib too.  So the Cabinet Secretary is not stretched beyond suggesting we’ve misunderstood things.

Michael Russell: I would be happy to provide information to them in the first instance because—as I have made clear—the basis on which Gavin Brown’s question was asked is untrue. We are not removing student loan support for those who study for the diploma in legal practice—that is not being proposed. In such circumstances, a meeting based on a false premise would not be sensible. However, if there is a reason for a meeting, I would be happy to ensure that my officials speak to those involved and, if it would be useful thereafter, of course I will meet them. Let us deal with facts, rather than things that are simply not true.

Clearly, there was no sign at all that the point we’ve been trying to make has registered in the slightest.  In fact, the Government seems to believe that any concern is based on misunderstanding or ignorance rather than any genuine concern that merits addressing.

Speaking to Gavin Brown afterwards, I understand he will write to the Cabinet Secretary to clarify.  I’ve also done so (by email), in the following terms:

To: scottish.ministers@s­cotland.gsi.gov.uk
Subject:  FAO: Mr Russell – Living Cost Loans for Students Taking Diploma in Professional Legal Practice

Dear Mr Russell,

I am Vice-President of the University of Edinburgh Law Students’ Council, the elected representative body for all law students at the University. I am writing to follow up on your answers to Gavin Brown’s question at Education Questions this afternoon (8 March).

Whilst Mr Brown’s question could have been worded more precisely, it did seem that you understood law students to be under a total misapprehension about the situation regarding future funding for the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DPLP). I can assure you this is not the case.

As I hope is clear from our letter to you of 21 February (copy attached), and as we discussed with Mr Biagi at our meeting with him on 6 March, our request is related to eligibility to loans for living costs. We fully understand that a loan that covers approximately half the cost of the fees for the course is available and, indeed, has been extended for 2012/3 to cover all students studying this course.

As you will see from our letter, we are asking for the extension of the normal, means-tested SAAS living costs loan to DPLP students. This will make a tremendous difference to those students who can’t rely on savings or parents for the £8,000 – £10,000 required, even after the fees loan, to fund the remainder of the fees plus living costs. Clearly this self-funding requirement is a massive barrier to the legal profession for those from less-privileged backgrounds. We note that this change would align the qualifications for access to the legal profession with those for teaching and social work, where living costs funding is available.

I hope this helps clarify matters. Mr Brown, Mr Biagi or Ms Johnstone may also be able to assist as they are aware of our position from various meetings.

We would also be delighted to meet with you if that would help.

Yours sincerely,

Tim Haddow
Vice-President
University of Edinburgh Law Students’ Council

I will post again when I get a reply!

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