Scottish Government: fuelling the education dream with empty promises?

The Scottish Government have made much of their ‘Higher Education for all’ stance, using it as a flagship policy. It does not always work out that way though – as Moray student and future commercial pilot Craig Stewart-Toner discovered…..

Craig Stewart-Toner
Craig Stewart-Toner – would receive Scottish Government funding if he studied as a commercial pilot in England – but not in Scotland

BEING A PILOT has been the dream career for me since a very early age – anything other than that was simply not an option – the idea of having an office at 30,000ft and with a varying view was one of the reasons I had to fulfil my dream.

Initially I thought that I would have to do my training in England until I discovered that Tayside Aviation in Dundee had started offering the degree course in Professional Pilots Practice. Tayside also have an incredible placement rate with Loganair, who fly all over Scotland and I thought this would be an ideal way to start my flying career.

I began my initial pilot training with the Private Pilot’s License over the summer in 2015. The course was incredibly intensive where I was flying lessons upwards of two times a day. The views of St Andrews, Loch Lomond and the lower Cairngorms from the skies became a daily occurrence.

My instructor, Angela, was an inspiration, not only for me but many others, her ability as a pilot, to instruct and build up my confidence was totally inspiring and with me, she needed lots of patience! In fact, every instructor I met at Tayside is incredibly motivated and an inspiration in their own right due to their many experiences.

Socially, Tayside allowed me to meet some truly awesome people that will remain lifelong friends.  For once, my enthusiasm and passion for flying wasn’t brushed under the carpet like it had been in various circumstances in school and socially in Moray.  The aviation-based discussions would carry on for hours and the knowledge shared would be knowledge gained. Mixed with the flying element, the summer in Tayside was a dream for me.

In October, I started the revolutionary degree course in association with Middlesex University. No University in Scotland did this for the BSc (Hons) in Professional Pilot Practice. The amount of work required is immense and really does test your perseverance and determination to get through.

Also, I found the course offered lots more content than the ones offered in England and was considerably cheaper, with an encouraging atmosphere that I did not find at the English College I visited.

Tayside Aviation - Scottish courses for Scottish students - but no funding from the Scottish Government
Tayside Aviation – Scottish courses for Scottish students – but no funding from the Scottish Government

With access to student finances from the Scottish Government, or so I thought, my parents could maybe just afford to do it. However, that’s where the problems started to appear.

As the course is delivered in Dundee from Middlesex University, we weren’t entitled to student finances from Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) due to legislation.

We were all told that when he was First Minister, Alex Salmond set in stone in Edinburgh University that all Scottish domiciled students would not pay tuition fees.

My parents realised because the degree was coming from Middlesex it would be a loan rather than full funding by SAAS and the Scottish Government They questioned this with SAAS, MSP Richard Lochhead and the Scottish Government as myself and others on the course were asking for no more than any other student born and educated in Scotland was entitled to – to either be fully funded for studying at a Scottish University or a student loan for studying at an English University.

English students get a full student loan from their equivalent to SAAS with no problem, as do EU students – the only students with a problem are the Scottish students who make up more than half of those studying at Tayside.

The irony is if we went to the English aviation college we would get the student loan no problem.

Thanks to my parents and other Scottish students’ parents the government agreed to fund the first three courses that are in progress at Tayside. I am, however, not the only pupil from Lossiemouth who is up taking this degree programme.

Sophie Martin is studying over the summer to enrol in the Degree in October – and I know of at least two others who are interested yet they are in serious risk of not getting any financial assistance whatsoever.

Tayside Aviation is considering moving the course to Durham, where, ironically, Scottish students would get a student loan.

Angus Robertson MP and Richard Lochhead MSP should be made aware of how many students from their constituents wish to follow this path. The fact, that when I asked Angus Robertson to attend an Open Day in Westminster by BALPA regarding ‘Pilot Training, the cost and the way forward’, the response I received by letter was that he had been too busy to attend at any point of the day.

Richard Lochhead said he would look into it as he would like Scotland to have its own Airline one day, although he did write to Scottish Education and Lifelong Learning Secretary, Angela Constance, on the matter.

I find the situation appalling as we will probably end up flying for Loganair. The same Loganair that is contracted by the Scottish Government to fly regional routes in and around Scotland – and that is why the training at Tayside is so important as we fly and train in all sorts of weather conditions.

For the amount of prospective pilots coming from such a compressed area, and the unknown number of those capable and willing but hamstrung by money fears, I really do think more awareness from the Government and Local Officials is required.

I feel let down by the First Minister, by my MP and MSP and the entire Scottish Government – even Nicola Sturgeon stressed in one of her speeches that she was assisted with her education, so she would not pull the ladder up from giving young people in Scotland free education to reach their ambitions.

The aviation industry is a hugely lucrative industry and Dundee is lucky to have such a successful Aviation College operating from there.  There are huge and ample opportunities for many young people and I’m sure many people want to see Scottish pilots flying for Scotland.