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Student debt and grants in Scotland: a summary

This post summarises the current position on grants and loans for full-time students in higher education in Scotland, and the background to it.


(i)  Fees and other payments

The Scottish Government funds the whole tuition cost for almost all first-time, full-time Scottish and EU students in Scotland, from the government’s cash budget. Therefore no-one from any background has to borrow for part or all of their fees. Scottish students will only need a fee loan (as students in other parts of the UK get, to defer fee payments) if they go to study elsewhere in the UK.

Between 2001 and 2006, young students entering degree-level  HE full-time were liable to pay the graduate endowment, a single payment of £2,000 at 2001-01 prices, after finishing university. The income from the GE was in theory ring-fenced for student bursaries. Graduates could either pay it in cash or add the liability to their existing student loan (or take out a first-ever loan) to defer the payment. Because of exemptions for HNC/D students, including those on “2+2” models, mature students, disabled students and single parents, slightly under half of all the full-time students the SG supported were liable to pay the GE, which was bringing in around £23m p.a. by 2007 (more here).  When the current Scottish Government says it brought in free tuition, it is referring to its abolition of the endowment in 2007. It is also often, in practice, describing its decision not to use devolved powers to copy either of the fee regimes which have applied in England since 2007.

(ii) Living cost grants

Scotland has relatively low student maintenance grants (here called bursaries).  Most living cost support is offered instead as student loan.

Between 2010 and 2012 inclusive, the means-tested grant for younger students, Young Student Bursary, was frozen in cash terms (see here for more on how its value changed from 2001 onwards). In 2013, the Scottish Government cut its total spending on maintenance grants by around £35m, or one-third.  The maximum YSB was reduced from £2,640 to £1,750, and it was withdrawn more quickly as income rose.  The government lowered the income at which maximum YSB was payable from £19,300 to £16,999. Many students lost £900 a year and some much more. The Scottish Government argued they could make up the difference by borrowing to fill the gap. Older students get the lower-rate Independent Student Bursary. This was introduced as a lower-rate grant by the Scottish Government in 2010, and then also scaled back in 2013.

In 2015, the Scottish Government added £125 back on to some grants, costing it around £5m,  and in 2016 it reversed most of the  cut to the threshold for maximum grant, raising it to £18,999 (likely to have cost it a bit under £2m a year).

The current system

The resulting living cost model in 2016-17 is in the table below.

Young Independent (ie mature)
Bursary Loan Bursary Loan
0-18,999 1,875 5,750 875 6,750
19,000-23,999 1,125 5,750 6,750
24,000-33,9999 500 5,750 6,250
34,000 plus 4,750 4,750

A particular feature of this model is that it is built round those from the lowest incomes, especially mature students, taking out the highest loans.  Until grants were abolished in England in 2016, Scotland was the only part of the UK taking this approach. It means that someone at a low income who wishes to take out their full entitlement to living cost support over four years faces a debt of £23,000 plus interest if they are younger, and £27,000 plus interest if they are older. Grants are higher in Wales and Northern Ireland (where students also only have to borrow for the first £3,900 of their fees: true for Welsh students anywhere in the UK, for NI ones in NI).

Actual borrowing

Figures on annual borrowing by income are published annually by the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS). The latest are here (see Table A6). They show that Scottish students borrowed a total of £0.5bn in 2015-16.

Around 70% of Scottish students take out a loan in any given year, and almost all those who borrow, borrow the whole amount they can.

The table below is adapted from the official statistics.  I’ve added two columns. One shows average borrowing across the group as a whole, i.e. including borrowers and non-borrowers.  The other shows the percentage who don’t borrow in each income group.   It’s reasonable to assume from other research that there are more non-borrowers in the higher income group because students’ access to family resources tends to rise as family income increases. It is likely that even within this group, non-borrowers are more prevalent at higher incomes:  it is quite plausible that at, say £60,000+, non-borrowers are in the majority.

The net effect of lower income students having higher loan amounts and making more use of loans is that students in the highest income range borrowed in practice around half as much per head (around £3,000) as those in the lowest income band (over £6,000). Another way to look at this is that Groups 1 to 4 below accounted for only 43% of all students, but took out 54% of all debt.

Borrowing by income band 2015-16

  Total students Borrowers Average borrowing (active borrowers) Average borrowing  (all) % Non-borrowers
1 No income details: receiving max bursary 10,055 9,360 6,660 6,201 7%
2 Up to £16,999 23,895 19,105 5,890 4,711 20%
3 £17,000 to £23,999 8,955 7,220 5,760 4,648 19%
4 £24,000 to £33,999 8,980 7,265 5,610 4,542 19%
5 £34,000 and above 2,965 1,850 4,650 2,901 38%
6 No income details: receiving no bursary 70,010 46,830 4,650 3,112 33%
Note:  I’ve removed EU students (14,705) from the figure for total students, as these students can’t borrow. I have assumed that they were contained in Group 6, as very few can claim means-tested support. That may not be exactly right, but it should be near enough. Most students with an income over £34,000 will be in Group 6, which covers those who chose not to submit income details, generally because they are above the threshold for bursary. Group 1 by contrast will be those who had no relevant income to declare and got the highest bursary level.  Group 5 is a small group whose income details SAAS knows, although they are over the bursary threshold. I have excluded here a very small group of low-income students separately shown in the SAAS table who anomalously have no income but don’t get full bursary: there’s something odd going on with this group (it may be that many don’t complete a full year).

Caution: final borrowing

Separate figures are published each year for students’ final borrowing. The most recent Scottish figure is £10,500. These figures are widely quoted but have to be handled with care. The average will be brought down by the large number of students in Scotland on one or two year courses, and – as shown above – any average will conceal variation by income. More on that here.


The Scottish system is not debt-free in the absence of fees: indeed Scottish students are borrowing a substantial amount as a group each year. The Scottish approach relies heavily on loans to cover the state’s role in providing low-income students, in particular, with living cost support. Grants are now so low that those from the lowest incomes are taking on the most of that living cost debt.  Equally, at high incomes, many students will be borrowing nothing.

Defending existing policy in Scotland means defending this outcome.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Modelling a different approach to fees and grants in Scotland

It seems common to assume that we’re faced with a straight choice on tuition fees, where the state either funds the whole of everyone’s tuition costs, or all students have to take out a loan for £9,250 a year.  It’s a perspective stuck in a binary choice between whatever-we-do-now-in-Scotland and whatever-they-do-now-in-England.  Other options are of course available. That’s what this post is about.

A starting point

The simplest alternatives for fees are:

  • setting the fee level at some number more than zero, but less than £9,250;
  • means-testing fees;  or
  • some combination of these two.

There’s a fairly common argument that any move away from free tuition inevitably means Scotland would end up where England is: the slippery slope perspective.  That puzzles me, because we would only end up there if that was what the politicians we elected chose.  It seems to assume we can trust them to keep it free, but not to maintain any alternative position. On this thinking, tuition fees are an addictive drug, from which governments must be kept away at all costs.  I’ll come back to that at the end.

If you reject this straitjacket, and believe that the Scottish political system is capable of managing other things, what might the alternatives be, and what would they mean for students?

Note:  I’m not advocating a specific model here, but demonstrating one different way things could work, as a starting point for a less constrained debate.  There are more radical ideas out there (here’s one), involving more fundamental change. All I want to show is the space  for alternative outcomes, just within the current broad general approach.

Living cost support matters

There’s no point designing a student funding system which only looks at one part of the story.

If you are only interested in thinking about fees in isolation, and don’t care much about living cost support, especially for low-income students, then look away now.  You and I are never going to have a mutually rewarding  conversation about this.

A lot of people in Scotland at this point suggest that living costs are a secondary (or even non-) issue, because students can always live with their parents and/or work their way through.  I disagree for the reasons set out in Footnote 1.

The modelling below assumes decisions on living costs are as important as fees, should be interlinked, and looks at combined effects.

Fees: upfront or deferred?

Even the most vigorously ideological advocates of tuition fees recognise that students tend not to have money at the moment.  It is very rare to find anyone, not even Milton Friedman, advocating unassisted upfront charges  (Footnote 2 describes the UK government’s short experiment with this).

Thus, in no part of the UK do first-time students now have to find the cost of their fees from their or their families’ existing resources.  With a few exceptions in Scotland and elsewhere, higher education is free at the point of entry for all  first-time undergraduate students in the UK, because at minimum they can take out a government-subsidised student loan to defer the full cost of their fees until they are earning above a certain level.

It’s hard to over-stress this point for readers in Scotland, where it still seems to be widely believed that students in England have had no choice but to find £9,000 a year from their families. Had that been the case, the system there would simply have collapsed. It is precisely because  fee costs are deferred that debt is so high in England.

So the model assumes that any fee is matched £ for £ by a government subsidised loan and that, as in other UK systems,  the fee loan (a)  would be repayable contingent on earnings, in the same way as maintenance borrowing is now, and (b)  is added to any maintenance loan to form a single debt, so that no-one is paying off two loans in parallel.

Debt aversion

Regardless of any evidence from England (Footnote 3),  it is possible that debt aversion should be a major concern for Scottish policy makers. In that case, however, we should already be worrying.

Living cost support for low-income Scottish students is now provided largely through loans, because grants are relatively low.  Here’s the figures for support from the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) for 2016-17.

Young student Independent student
Household income Bursary Loan Bursary Loan
£0 to £18,999 £1,875 £5,750 £875 £6,750
£19,000 to £23,999 £1,125 £5,750 £0 £6,750
£24,000 to £33,999 £500 £5,750 £0 £6,250
£34,000 and above £0 £4,750 £0 £4,750

The model below illustrates how in a system which includes some fee-paying,  low-income students can still have less debt than in one with free tuition, while protecting the value of their total living cost support.

The scale of student debt in Scotland and its distribution

Around £500 million is now borrowed each year by Scottish students.  At the moment, annual borrowing is skewed towards those from lower-income households, for two reasons:

  • they borrow more on average, and
  • they are more likely to make use of student loans.

As a result,  over half of all student loan is taken out each year by students declaring a household income below £34,000, although fewer than half of students fall into that group.

The current statistics don’t allow us to differentiate amongst those with incomes over £34,000.  But looking at earlier data, there’s a good chance that there’s a similar skewing of debt within the higher income group, towards middle-income households and away from the highest income ones.

The model removes the current built-in assumption that the highest debts should be taken on by those from the lowest incomes, again while protecting current total spending.

What could be different?

Put simply, we could move the debt around, so that more of this £500 million is taken out by students from higher-income backgrounds, and less by those from lower-income ones.

That means finding more to spend on grant, by spending less on fee subsidies, and expecting those at higher incomes to borrow some of their fee cost.


There are in essence three ways to get this effect.

  1. Means-test the fee.
  2. Apply the fee to everyone, but then have a separate means-tested fee grant which immediately wipes it out for lower-income students.
  3. Apply the fee to everyone, but then build a means-tested off-setting amount into the  living cost grant, before making any other increases.


Different mechanisms would have different implications for practical administration, public understanding/presentation, student behaviour and the detail of public finances. But they would all provide an identical boost to the amount of grant provided at lower incomes for the same level of fee.

One basic model

The model below asks students from the highest income households to borrow one half of the average cost of a university place in Scotland. So students from these households would be offered a government-subsidised fee loan to cover a fee of £3,500 a year. The cash released from tuition fee subsidies would be put back into grants.

How much would a £3,500 fee raise?

SAAS currently supports around 140,000 students, of whom around 15,000 are from the EU.  I’ll concentrate for now on moving the public subsidy around between the 125,000 Scottish students.  A separate section below considers EU students.

If Scottish students from the highest quarter of student-providing households by income were liable for the fee, it would notionally release around £110m a year from tuition fee subsidies (125,000 x 25% x £3,500).

I can’t say what the income cut-off would be, because the Scottish data on students is now too aggregate to show that.  Looking at figures for years before 2013, when more detail was provided,  I’d guess it would be somewhere between £50,000 and £60,000 of household income (around the highest 15-20% of all households in Scotland by income, after equivalising for a family of 2 adults and 2 children).

How could the money saved on fee subsidies at high incomes be used to bring down debt at lower incomes?

I’ll spend the money on substantially increasing means-tested maintenance grants, on which  we now spend only £55m a year.

It would cost c£30m to switch £1,000 of living cost support from loan to grant for those on the Young Student Bursary.

I’ll spend a further c£40m on giving independent students (for example, those over 25, or who are parents, or married/in a partnership) the same  bursary as young ones, and bringing down their debt, because these students in Scotland are on a much less generous grant and a higher loan, and there’s really no good way to justify that.

I’ll also spend c£15m on  a new £1,000 grant for students from households between £34,000 and £45,000, because these families, who are not awash with cash, are expected to find much more out of pocket help for their children in Scotland than is the case in the rest of the UK and that’s a concern: more here.

The net annual effect on individual students at different incomes would be:

  • Young students with incomes below £34,000 would gain £1000 in grant and lose £1000 in debt, with no change in the total value of their living cost support.
  • Those with incomes between £34,000 and £45,000 would gain £1,000 in grant and therefore £1,000 in total living cost support, with no change in debt.
  • Nothing would change for those between £45,000 and the fee liability point.
  • Those liable for fees would have £3,500 more debt a year and no change to living cost support.
  • For mature students it’s a similar picture, except that they would gain more grant and lose more debt.

Using this approach, all students are now offered the same living cost loan (£4,750), with cash grant used to do any additional income-based targeting

I’ve spent approaching £90m. I assume that due to things I’ve failed to take into account, income wouldn’t be as high and expenditure would be  higher, so my spending plans may still be a bit ambitious on this level of fee.  But they will be in the right general area.  If students from the wealthiest quarter of households were expected to borrow £3,500 a year of their tuition cost, it seems likely that we could nearly treble our spending on maintenance grants.

The effect on the new fee payers

Total debt for those at high incomes would come to a maximum of £8,250 a year.  Two points about that. First, in practice many of these students would only have a £3,500 annual debt, because  living cost debt take-up is lower in this group, presumably because many have all their living costs met by their parents.

But the second is the more important. Low income mature students are already expected to incur £6,750 in living cost debt – and most do.  If you have managed in recent years not to be outraged at the reality of a £6,750 annual debt for most mature students with no income, you are not in strong position to be outraged now at a theoretical maximum debt of £8,250 a year for students from high income families which many won’t actually incur.

Is this a good model?

This would be a pretty clunky way to do things.  The Scottish system already incorporates large step changes in entitlement, and it’s not an ideal approach. However, because the data comes packaged that way, it’s hard to model anything without copying that.

The point of this model is not to advocate it in this precise form, but to bring out what scale of change would be possible for a particular form of fee liability.

A more radical, and carefully argued and well-evidenced, rearrangement of fee and grant subsidies has been proposed for Wales by the Diamond Committee. The Welsh Government has accepted the recommendations and recently finished consulting on the detail of implementing it. The change has cross-party support, and support from the NUS Wales and Universities Wales. Anyone interested in this debate should read that report (here),  as a further example of the range of possibilities.

What about other objections to fees?

If your objection to fees is that higher education is a public good and therefore students shouldn’t have to contribute on principle, I have bad news. Scotland crossed that ideological bridge a long time ago and is now £500m a year into that territory, because all student loan debt is a form of student contribution, whether it’s for living costs or fees.  Moreover,  there is no realistic chance that the Scottish Government is going to reduce its reliance on student loans to underwrite the higher education system.  £500m is roughly the annual cost of the whole FE system, or 1p on the basic rate of income tax.

A separate objection to fees is that they create a “weakest to the wall” market in higher education.   That’s not a necessary effect in the model above, in which the SFC continues to decide where the funded places are, and fully funds the fees of three-quarters of Scottish undergraduate students and half the cost of the rest.  It is entirely possible to seek a fee contribution from some students (or even all) in a system as planned as the current one, without moving to a quasi-voucher market.

Another objection is that fees change the nature of higher education, converting what should be a purely educational relationship into a purchase, and positioning students as consumers (some people are for this, but many are not). Around half of students in Scottish universities already pay fees, including many on full-time undergraduate courses (overseas students, rUK students).  Many others are already taking out large loans to pay  for their living costs. Would asking some, or even all, Scottish undergraduate students to borrow to cover some of the cost of tuition create a dramatic cultural shift from where we already are?  That’s debatable at best, I think.

But even if  you believe that all the things above would be unavoidable and undesirable,  is the price now being paid to avoid them defensible? In order to shelter everyone from any fee at all, we have designed a system which means student debt has to be shouldered disproportionately by those from lower incomes, while people from the most well-off backgrounds are routinely leaving university debt free.  It’s the least well-off students bearing most of the cost of these principles.

Investing in grants vs other things

One of the arguments often made for fees is that access to HE remains socially skewed and it would be better, and fairer, to subsidise HE students less and spend more on levels of education which everyone uses.  The model above doesn’t address that, because it doesn’t release any cash, it just moves it around between existing students.

The model also therefore doesn’t deal with the relative under-supply of places in Scotland compared to other parts of the UK.  A thousand extra places fully funded for fees and grant would cost around £10m. Nor does the model offer universities any additional funding per student: increasing university spending has often (though not always) been behind fee rises.

To deal with these issues as well in any serious way would mean a higher fee, and/or one which was less heavily means-tested, and/or ceasing to provide EU students with free tuition (recalling that none of the sums above included them).

SAAS funds just under 15,000 EU students. The total current spending on them is around £100m a year (15,000 x £7,000: they cannot claim maintenance grant). We don’t know yet what the Scottish Government will decide to do about this group.

In 2010-11, the SG was actively seeking ways to charge these students at least something (here). My assumption is that, once EU law ceases to apply and once the current commitment to the 2017 and 2018 entry cohorts has been met, the SG will return to the issue of how it can reduce its spending on this group in some way, so that some or all of the cash is available for other things. At a time other things are under pressure, the sum at stake simply looks too large at first sight to be affordable as a voluntary symbolic gesture.

Where next?

One of the great campaigning coups of the past 20 years has been the success with which  so many  people have been persuaded that free tuition is essential to widening access and that defending it must be given absolute priority over improving (or even just protecting) levels of student grant.   Thus grants in Scotland were cut by a third in 2013 with the support of NUS Scotland, and no outcry beyond the parliamentary opposition parties.   Grants are important too, it is sometimes conceded, but not so important we should give an inch on free tuition to spend more on them.  According to this view, the only proper way to increase grants is by finding the cash from some other budget, or more tax, and until that happens it is better to put up with what we have than to raid the fee budget.

I don’t expect any real shift in policy here or even in what people are prepared to debate. The SNP, the Scottish Greens, Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats all supported free tuition in the 2016 Holyrood elections (though at least the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats also mentioned increasing means-tested grants, and the SNP said it would “work to improve” them). The Conservative offering on fees was much more cautious than the model above, limited to something like the old graduate endowment, and would have raised a relatively small amount, and not for several years.

The appearance of any proposal like the one discussed here tends to trigger Spanish Inquisition-like questioning of Scottish opposition politicians about whether they will rule out tuition fees (grants don’t get a look in), with a moment’s hesitancy being taken as political death.  This – for the avoidance of doubt – is an absolutely brilliant state of affairs for people whose parents can fund them through university but much worse news for people whose parents can’t.

This positioning of tuition fees as a box which must never be opened even a crack benefits one section of society. It’s the one I know best, and it has always been good at identifying high-minded arguments in defence of its own interests. But rarely so successful as in this case at persuading other people that they must leave their barricade neglected, and come and defend its one instead.  It’s been a rather one-sided vision of solidarity so far.

But here we are. The maths of a more even sharing debt among students in Scotland is really pretty easy. The politics look as impossible as ever.



Footnote 1: Living costs don’t matter as much as fees because …

Students can live at home: (a) no, they can’t all do that,  (b) even for those who can, it will not always be a particularly good idea and (c) even when it’s a good option, those students still need to be fed, to travel (especially, often, travel) and to have clothes, books and so on, and it’s not reasonable to expect families on low incomes to absorb these costs unaided.

Also, that students can work is not a killer argument against the equal importance of living cost support.  There’s a growing literature on the impact of working, especially in term-time.  It’s not all discouraging: some types of working, at some level, for some people, appear to be fine. But the overwhelming message is that those students who don’t take on paid employment, especially in term, will tend to get more out of higher education, academically and in other ways.

But there’s a more fundamental problem with saying that fee loans are a problem, but maintenance loans aren’t, because people can work. It confuses the income and expenditure sides of the equation.   Logically, you might as well say fee loans wouldn’t be an issue, given a high enough level of grant, because people could work to pay their fees. Unless you accept the second of these arguments, you can’t use the first.

Footnote 2: Actual upfront fees – the 1998 reforms

In 1998, the UK government introduced an upfront yearly fee of £1,000. It was means-tested (this is generally forgotten), so that – roughly – the top third by income paid the whole amount, the middle third some of it, and the lowest third by income, nothing.  The dedicated fee loan had not yet been invented (though living cost loans were boosted with the idea people might choose to use some of the extra amount borrowed to cover the cost). The change was very unpopular with those who had to pay, and the way it was discussed obscured that many paid nothing or only part.  It was also accompanied by the abolition of grants, but that attracted much less fuss, as did their reintroduction in 2004.

The 1999 Scottish elections were dominated by 1998 fee regime and the sense that fees must be an immediate cost to families persists in Scotland still. However, when fees ceased to be means-tested in 2006, the UK government also enabled them to be deferred using a government subsidised loan. In passing, this means that nowhere in the UK since 1962 have first-time full-time low-income students been expected to find the cost of an upfront fee with no form of government help. But you could be forgiven for not knowing that, from the political rhetoric.

Footnote 3: Debt effects in England

Researchers looking at the statistics, and interviewing students, have discovered a high degree of willingness  (not necesssarily enthusiasm, just willingness) to borrow among young students of all backgrounds in England.  Participation rates there, including for those from disadvantaged backgrounds,  have increased at least as quickly as in Scotland.  This is not the same as saying no-one, anywhere has ever been deterred, and there’s more evidence that older, especially part-time, students are more debt averse.  But the last 20 years of data from England (and comparisons with Scotland) on participation levels and access have generally not been as helpful to advocates of free tuition as they might have hoped.


Rethinking the four year degree

There’s a head of steam building in Scotland to make it easier for school leavers to get an honours degree in three years.  The most recent intervention is the report of the Scottish Government’s 15-24 “Learner Journey” review, published last week (here). It argues that more school leavers with sufficient Advanced Highers gained in S6 should be starting in second year of a degree. The same argument was made by the newish Commissioner for Fair Access in January (here).

A conversation on these lines has been going on for years. What’s new (I think) is that it is now being promoted directly by the government. The 15-24 review was  a process conducted by the Scottish Government, the report written by civil servants working to Ministers, the foreword signed by the Deputy First Minister.

The report recommends (emphasis added):

Recommendation 13
We will minimise unnecessary duplication at SCQF level 7. We will make maximum use of the flexibility of the four year degree to enable learners to move, where appropriate, from S5 to year 1 and, through greater recognition of Advanced Highers, from S6 to year 2 of a university degree programme.
There is a nod towards using financial mechanisms to achieve this (also new, I think).

In tackling issues of the variability of the offer to the young person from such initiatives it is for bodies like the SFC [the Scottish Funding Council] to ensure that their conditions of grant prioritise the learner and stipulate full recognition of prior attainment and maximise articulation, toward the achievement of a properly integrated system. (pp52-3)

This post reflects on this recommendation. It argues that there is an opportunity here to rethink the four degree in a more fundamental way.


The background

University entrance straight from school in Scotland has for many years been based largely on Highers, the exam taken at the end of 5th year.  There’s been a sixth year in the system for decades, but it’s only relatively recently that staying on into 6th year before going to university has become the dominant model (the review report includes some useful analysis of the figures on this). This shift has been accompanied by the introduction of Advanced Highers (AH), designed as a more demanding qualification to follow on from Highers. These are designated as SCQF Level 7, the same level of difficulty as the first year of a university degree. Some young people use 6th year to top-up their Highers, but an increasing number are using the year mainly to take the more advanced level of qualification.

The argument

The argument goes that Advanced Highers overlap with first year university courses and that for at least some young people entering first year with Advanced Highers, this means their first year at university is repetitive, and therefore wasted: this is the “unnecessary duplication” quoted above.

The report doesn’t tease out why this duplication is a problem. It could have mentioned sheer boredom and demotivation, bad in themselves. The extra cost of maintenance is an issue too, given Scottish students get very little grant support towards this, even the least well off. Either families have to find more, or students borrow more, or both, to fund the “duplicate” year at university. The extra year also means later entry into the labour market, an opportunity cost. It is relevant too to the debate about access: raising cost will tend to raise perceived risk, which some research suggests can play an important role for some in the decision to enter higher education.

It is absolutely right therefore, and welcome, that the report makes recommendations to deal with duplication between 6th year and first year at university. The rest of this post considers the potential here to think more about the structure of the four year degree, as a way of dealing with some practical issues the review’s recommendations raise.

The four year degree

Scotland’s four year degree is a “3+1” model. On many courses, three years’ study will get you an unclassified “ordinary” degree. Some courses are only offered to this level.  The fourth year is needed for “honours”, which  is classified (First, 2:1 etc).

This great bit of analysis by the office of the Commissioner for Fair Access shows that in Scotland ordinary degrees are disproportionately taken by those from the most disadvantaged postcodes. It argues that this is a problem for fair access – “access to what?” – and I agree.  Various things could account for this pattern. The important point here is that the three year degree exists.

English universities also award ordinary degrees, but generally not for a year’s less study: it is either (as in Scotland) the standard award in a few subjects, or an unclassified pass. A year less study might get you a non-degree award, such as an HE diploma, or a “foundation degree” (see below).

Who is being asked to change?

When reforms are being promoted, it is always worth looking at who is being asked to make the most change.

The 15-24 review does expect change on the part of schools and universities. The latter must work more closely with schools on the provision of AHs, so that they form a base from which second year entry is secure. Universities are also expected to be prepared to take more people into second year. The line between school and university will blur in the AH year: as the report notes, there are already examples of universities providing AH courses. All this may be very useful, especially in demystifying university for those who are uncertain.

The language is revealing, however. Entry is still into second year. The young people doing this will remain, in some way, anomalous to the main course design, which will continue to be for a 4-year through programme. Meantime, schools will go on teaching people highers and advanced highers, albeit in closer partnership (perhaps) with universities.

The largest change being demanded, really, is from the young people themselves. They are being asked to forego the experience of starting in a clear first year cohort, and instead to enter university as newcomers to established social circles, to learn the academic and social ropes as newbies among the more experienced, to be classified as unusual second years, not straightforward first years.

That the burden of change falls so much on young people bothers me. I read them as being fitted differently into a relatively unchanged system rather than the system being built round them.

It’s the whole conception of second year entry that we should pause on. It risks sending a signal to institutions and those who work in them that “proper” students continue to start in first year.  I think of two people I know who did unusual joint honours programmes, in two different universities, thirty years apart. In both cases the joint courses were formally in their university’s prospectus, but both had a terrible time feeling constantly marginal, fighting endlessly to get the teaching they had been promised, to be treated as well as other students on mainstream courses. My concern would be that if AH+3 people are conceived as second year entrants, they will suffer the same problem of being badged as essentially anomalous, their specific needs regarded as a problem to accommodate, with predictable effect, even if there are many more.

The Scottish two year degree?

It’s around 20 years since the UK government promoted the introduction of two-year foundation degrees in England, to address a concern about the absence of short-cycle higher education. The then Scottish Executive declined to do the the same. HNDs being well-established as a two-year HE qualification meant there was not the same perception of a gap in provision here, and there was minimal pressure from within Scottish educational circles, whose members were (and are) more likely to point out that in European terms a three year degree is already unusually short.

Second year entry with AHs means that a school-leaver can obtain an unclassified ordinary degree in Scotland after two years of university. That looks a lot like a foundation degree. This is already possible for the very small number entering second year with AHs, so this is not an absolutely new thing. It is simply that the more the system is re-designed to make second year entry from school a common way in, the more likely it is that it will be combined with an ordinary degree to make the two year degree a reality.

Thus one observation about promoting second year entry into an unreformed Scottish degree structure is that it also gives a push to the two-years-from-school degree. The emphasis on second year entry being for those who do particularly well at AH may mean that the system architects assume that those who will use this route are unlikely also to be those who will choose to exit with an ordinary degree. Well, maybe, but that would overlook how users often shape systems in unpredicted ways.

Two years from school to get an ordinary degree might of course be a useful addition to the choices available, or it might be an unhelpful complication when we already have HNDs.  It would definitely be better emerging as a conscious outcome than an unintended consequence.

Rethinking the four year degree

There’s another way of thinking about this.

South of the border, some universities, particularly some of the most selective, are moving towards offering an additional foundation year for students identified as having potential but whose school results leave them likely to be disadvantaged in first year. That’s a 1+3 model.

Quite separately, one of the most persuasive defences of the four year degree (I think) is that it allows students to try a range of subjects in their first year: the breadth and then depth argument.

So rather than thinking of the 4 year degree as a 3+1 model, why not rethink it as 1+3? A multi-subject foundation year, and then a three year degree course to honours. We could allow (and fund) entry to the foundation year as long as the student is not repeating subjects they have done at AH (maybe even if they are, trusting institutions only to admit people in such cases for whom they judge it makes sense). The foundation year would be a time to try things you couldn’t do at school for whatever reason (timetabling, staffing) or to make the shift in level for those who had mainly done highers in 6th year, or who left after 5th year (more on that group below).

Students entering into the honours degree stage with AHs would then be entering into first year of a three year course. They would still be joining an established group (though see below), but everyone would be on this course for the first time. I think the psychology of that would help new arrivals, and be usefully absorbed by institutions.

Also, even better, the foundation year could be seen as so distinct from the honours course that you might do that at one university (maybe one that lets you live at home, especially if you are only 17) and then move to start (in first year) at another. Some European continental systems operate a bit like this: start local, move further later. The admissions arrangements for this under the current system look at first sight a nightmare (ideally, we wouldn’t make people go through UCAS two years in a row) but that feels like the wrong reason not to consider it.

In many ways, this just takes the logic of a more fused 6th year/university provision a step further. It repositions the current university first year as something even more analogous with doing AHs in 6th year. Whether you stay at school or go on to a foundation year at university would depend on whether you were ready to move away, whether you wanted out of your school, or to stay longer somewhere familiar, what subjects you could do in each case …  Whether you did both would depend on how the level and scope of your 6th year study meshed with your university plans. The seeds of such thinking are already there in the 15-24 report, this just pushes the logic.

In passing, this model also eliminates the possibility of introducing the Scottish two year degree from school by accident, because there is no early exit point with an unclassified degree-level qualification, without a  creating a new one by design.

Of course, this may all be a completely daft way of looking at it. But as an option which forces more of the burden of change more clearly onto the structure of provision rather than the individuals taking part, I think it deserves attention. On this model, everyone still gets to be a proper first year. Sometimes twice.

Entry from 5th year

The other part of the report’s recommendation is to throw into reverse the drift towards entry after 6th year and encourage more  young people to skip 6th year and enter university straight from fifth year, as was more common in the past.

I have my doubts about that, unless the current first year is reconceived as a more localised foundation year, aimed more consciously at younger students living at home. The report notes that it is parents who are most wary about the idea of reverting to young people staring university after only 12 years at school, when they may be as young as 16, and rarely more than 17. Parents may have noticed that contemporary university culture doesn’t always look that accommodating for the under 18s, not least for young women. It is very good the Scottish government is supporting a project to “tackle lad culture” in order to reduce sexual harrassment and assault on campus.  But until the results of that are clear, people might be forgiven for caution about the age at which young people start university, especially as more than a local commuter.

I’d be curious to know too how the student body has changed over recent years. There are many more overseas students and taught post-graduates, and more rUK students who tend to arrive aged 18 or 19. My guess is that 16 and 17 year olds might feel much more in a minority on campus now than 20 or 30 years ago.

As an alternative solution to the overlap problem, I am therefore sceptical about the return of “fast tracking” many people from fifth year into the first year of a four year honours degree. The age issue might matter less though if you are treating commuting to a university foundation year as an alternative to attending school. That would be another reason to offer a 1+3 model.

Side issue: Funding 6th year vs HNC vs FE

The 15-24 report explains that the SCQF level (a difficulty measure) and the amount of credit (a volume of work measure) are the same for 3 AHs as for at least some HNCs: both are designated as level 7, with 96 credit points. First year at university is also counted as level 7, but expects more volume, normally 120 credits.

Funding varies between HN students and AH ones, and between AH students in school and in college, depending on age.  The student funding review which reported last November only offered a partial answer to this. The government response to that may have been deferred until this review reported. But there’s an obvious question about consistency here, the more first year university and 6th year in school blurs, whether or not there is any fundamental change is made to how 4 year degrees are structured.


This is a thought experiment, that wonders about the benefits of rethinking the Scottish honours degree as a 1+3 structure rather than 3+1.  Those who run the system may quickly find all sorts of problems with doing that. But it at least addresses the extent to which the burden of change otherwise feels to this reader to fall more on young people than system providers, looks at first sight a way to reinforce flexibility around points of entry and to make meshing the final year of school and first year of university easier.

Student support review minutes

The SG is currently moving to a new website.  The new site provides only a minimal amount of material on the student support review.

It does however give a link to the archived version of the old one. This had more documents, including a list of members and minutes. Unfortunately, clicking on the individual document links for those now produces this:

Minutes dead end

So the minutes seem not to have made it to the archived version. However, they were publicly available at least until 30 November 2017, which was the date the versions below were cached by Google (I saved them from that source on 13 December).  So they are here, for anyone interested. There was also at least one meeting of the review after the summer, whose minutes never made it on online.

I presume that the appearance of the words “Virgin Money Holdings” in the tab at the top of each document reflects the system on which they were created (that would be consistent with the font not being Times New Roman,  which is used widely in SG: it used to be the system default setting, with deviation discouraged, though I don’t know if that’s still the case).  The tab appeared when they were originally accessed from the SG site and has stuck in my saved versions.

5 December 2016

27 January 2017

24 February 2017

10 March 2017

28 April 2017

10 May 2017

16 June 2017

Toby Young’s Schooldays

This post attempts to reconcile two contradictory claims.

The first is this.

young 2

However, he is previously on record as having gone to university from a comprehensive, quite specifically:

young 4

Young’s use of this scheme has attained semi-legendary qualities, as he was a grade off meeting the offer and also ignored the college’s request to obtain an additional O-level, so that according to a story he has often told, he relied on a clerical error and his father’s intervention to get a place.

Young appeared just to have admitted, therefore, to having misled Oxford about the type of school he was attending when he applied, in order to obtain easier entry.  That would be something of a story for someone in his new position at the OfS, not least coming on top of what was already known about his admission.

Otherwise he appeared to be inventing a grammar school history, to deflect criticism of unpleasant comments he had made about other students when younger. The news story he refers to is here, and here are fuller quotes:

young 3

(Returning to Young’s first tweet above, the journalist might have been forgiven, one feels, for reading this as an uncomplimentary set of comments about people from grammar schools. Presumably the nuance missed was that Young and his friends meant only some people from grammar schools.)

On examination, Young turns out to have attended three secondary schools, the first two definite comprehensives (until he was 13 one in London, then one in Devon, after his family moved), and the last (where he did his A levels) a single sex grammar school back in London, which had started going comprehensive a few years earlier. In this BBC programme (at 21:55), Young says “I was in the last grammar school year” when he entered the sixth form of William Ellis.

So Young seems to have gone to Oxford from a grammar school (as far as it affected him), albeit one which was shifting to comprehensive status in the years below him.  Equally, it’s reasonable to observe that he wasn’t a typical grammar school boy, not having gone through selective entry at 11. Young explains in the same BBC programme that entry to William Ellis’s sixth form had only a minimum requirement of 5 O-levels at Grade C, which he  able to meet because, after resits, he had 4 such O-levels and a CSE at Grade 1, which was technically equivalent.

So it turns out Young could reasonably claim to be both a grammar school and comprehensive product, and at a grammar school or a comprehensive in his final school years, depending on how you look at it.  Indeed, going through articles while researching this, he could be observed claiming to be different things at different times, depending on the context. Thus, in the Oxford Union debate which is the source of the quote at the top he referred to receiving a lower offer as a comprehensive pupil, in order to argue that these schools were damaged by depressed expectations. In arguing for his particular model of free school, however, he has compared his experience in a sixth form grammar with his earlier comprehensive period to argue for the superiority of the former.

To complicate matters, Young has only sometimes described the entry scheme as being specifically for comprehensive pupils. In a biography, he described it as being a scheme for applicants “from state schools”, which he clearly was, and expands that it allowed people to bypass sitting the entrance exam and have a “rigorous interview” instead (everyone had a rigorous interview: the difference was that the traditional exam/interview route meant successful candidates knew they were in, whatever grades they got, as long as they were at least 2Es).

Even more vaguely, he has also said he entered under

a special scheme to encourage people who weren’t ‘conventional Oxford material’ to apply to read PPE. I certainly fell into that category. I failed all my O-levels first time round and after retaking, ended up with four Cs and a grade one in CSE Drama.

Along with his description of the type of school he went to, and the scheme under which he entered, Young’s account of his initial exam results varies a bit.  They are always bad, but sometimes he fails all his O-levels, sometimes there was one O-level and sometimes an O-level at Grade C in English Literature and a CSE in Drama, out of four O-levels and 4 CSEs attempted. Also, the extent to which the child of his particular background (see footnote), was not “conventional Oxford material”, simply because he had done very badly at O-level is arguable (I say this as someone from a pretty similar family background, if a few notches less posh). But that Young felt it “certainly” to be the case,  even at the age of 45, stands out for me. And it is a reasonable observation that to get even as far as an interview at an Oxford college under any scheme with 4 Cs at O-level and a CSE was indeed pretty remarkable. You might indeed expect the college to have been swamped by running interviews for applicants from comprehensives, or who had previously been at comprehensives, had it been well-known that it was commonly applying such a threshold to anyone who had attended that sort of school.

I feel I ought to be able to shed more light on this, as I went to Brasenose from a comprehensive two years later. But I don’t remember any specific college entry scheme that year for some or all state school pupils, or any of my comprehensive-educated friends ever mentioning one. That doesn’t means the scheme Young describes didn’t exist two years before, or when I applied: it would just be useful here if I could remember anything about one.  Maybe the account which relates it specifically to PPE explains this.  I studied a different subject, entering via the conventional exam route. In passing, I’m slightly puzzled that Young makes it sound as though he applied to one college directly, as I’m pretty sure that when I did it admissions were centrally adminstered: we listed a number of colleges and they then considered us, in a sort of mini-UCAS system. I can’t quite see where the sort of scheme he describes would fit in that, but it’s a consistent element of his account that it was a named member of staff at the college who had set up this scheme, whatever its precise rules were.

So Young’s two claims appear most obviously capable of being reconciled if:

  • There never actually was a scheme only open to comprehensive school pupils, or
  • The college treated him as a “comprehensive enough” pupil because of his earlier educational history, or
  • He took advantage of William Ellis’s shifting status, although it did not affect him directly.

The first would only raise the question why he ever claimed there was. The second would have been a kindly interpretation on the part of the college, choosing to place more weight on the impact of Young’s past school experience than his present school. In that case, I hope they were making at least similar general concessions to people applying under the scheme who were not subsequently doing their A-levels in settings with such intense academic support (and that Young is only incorrectly guessing when he says at one point that his was probably one of the lowest offers the college ever made). The last possibility on the list above would just have been a classic bit of middle class gaming of the education system.

Young went on to do very well at university: it’s only his recent appointment to the OfS that makes any of this remotely worth bringing up. But given that, it seems moderately interesting to wonder which of these applied.

Update 6 January

A further  description of Young’s entry is here

Some people will accuse me of hypocrisy because I was the beneficiary of positive discrimination. I applied to Brasenose because it had introduced a scheme to attract candidates from state schools and, after a gruelling interview, I received a low conditional offer. Nevertheless, I’m a good illustration of why such positive discrimination is wrong-headed. My father was a Labour peer and when I applied to Oxford I was at a grammar school on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I didn’t deserve special treatment, yet if Oxford and Cambridge set aside places for state school applicants it would be those like me who’d gain, not children on free school meals.

So here the scheme is desribed as generic to all state schools, to show that such schemes will benefit people who don’t need it (thus his previous poor O-level performance at a comprehensive is omitted from the story).



Young’s father attended a series of private schools (some of which sound pretty horrible) in the 1920s and 1930s, and was a graduate of the LSE who trained as a barrister before becoming one of the post-war UK’s great social reformers, for which he was awarded a peerage when Young was in his mid-teens. His mother attended Bedales before going to Cambridge and then worked as a BBC producer before having children, and continued to be a successful writer and artist.  He has recalled how he grew up in a house constantly visited by the great and good and has written about both his parents touchingly and with affection. In a neat tangible example of what these sort of advantages can mean in practice, Young tells a story at one point to the BBC about how his father was able to help him with a 6th form essay about House of Lords reform by sharing his reflections on being in the House of Lords. He claims it was the first one for which he ever got an A. He  does also say however that his parents didn’t take much direct interest in what was happening with his school work until his initial O-level disaster. At that point, he credits his father’s decision to send him to a kibbutz for three months with transforming his situation, not least because it broke his 3 year pot habit. He reports coming back determined to go to university (specifically Oxford) and as a first step resitting the three O-levels he had failed, achieving “with Herculean effort”,he says, a C in all of these, enabling him to start his A-levels at William Ellis.


The price of meeting political timetables: baby boxes as a case study

Update on 29 December:  A check of recent SG FoI responses today brings up this one published by SG on 22 December, just after the post below was written. The SG had been asked by the original inquirer, presumably, to clarify  what was covered by the item listed as “Scottish Government Procurement £51,143.50 – In relation to advice concerning procurement of Baby Boxes”.   The response was that

To clarify, the figure for “Scottish Government Procurement” is not an item of Scottish Government expenditure. This refers to a funds transfer between Scottish Government cost centres and is an internal “re-charge” to cover work undertaken by Scottish Government staff in the procurement team. Re-charge policy for procurement is corporate, ie normal practice that applies across the whole of government. The figure represents 147.5 man-days at various charge rates.

So this amount was not, as assumed below, expenditure on external legal advice but on internal advice recharged by one part of government to another, because staff in Procurement do, it turns out, levy an internal charge for their time. It’s not clear whether this was legal advice or advice of some other sort.  It clearly affects the analysis below: there was still a £92,000 investment in procurement-related advice, but not all of this was externally provided.

As long as this relates to existing staff costs, and no new staff were recruited specifically due to this (temporary agency staff, for example), this information reduces the additional public spending incurred due to procurement advice to £41,000. The £51,143.50 would then instead be an internal opportunity cost:  the new response describes it as the equivalent of around 7 months’ work on producing advice (147.5 days, out of around 250 in the working year). That in turn implies an average annual cost for the staff concerned of almost £90,000 a year. Even allowing for the recharging of on-costs, that’s pretty high in civil service terms. Something a bit out of the ordinary still seems to be going on.

It was odd and confusing that the original response defined “all spending to date” as including  this element of internal staff costs, but not any others. However, doing so still shed a useful light on how significant procurement-related advice was in total, as an expense in one form or another.

I have left the original post unamended, because I think the main point of interest here stands, but readers will want to bear this new information in mind.

Original post

Baby boxes have been in the news again. Yesterday’s coverage was of some new SG research (worth a separate post at some point).  But there’s also new financial information available for this policy which gives some insight into how the Scottish Government works, especially the power of political imperatives, and attitudes within government towards the parliament.

Costs to date

A Freedom of Information response was published on the SG website on 30 November which gave a breakdown of all costs to date of the baby box policy. I don’t know who submitted it (it was not me).

Here are the costs in each year to date (categorisation by this author). The biggest surprise is that £91,885 was spent on procurement advice, more than was spent on research (£80,444).

box spend

MacRoberts LLP (£40,621 in 2015-16 and £120 in 2016-17) [correction:  should say 2016-17 and 2017-18: table is correctly labelled] is one of the big commercial law firms in Scotland and has a standing “framework” contract with the SG for providing external legal advice.  SG lawyers don’t charge internally, so the £51,144 in 2016-17 [correction: 2017-18, as above] assigned to SG Procurement must also be for external advice, though we don’t know where from [See update note above: this turns out to have been an internal charge].  Two large payments in different financial years suggests complexity, for example that the question was so tricky MacRoberts had to be paid in instalments, or a second substantial  question arose, or the first advice didn’t do quite what was needed.

The relevant background here will be the granting of the baby box national contract, worth £35m over 4 years, with no competitive process to APS Group (Scotland)  Ltd (more here, from August). APS Group (Scotland) Ltd is a private limited company  75% owned  by the Cheshire-based APS Group Ltd. It has a standing “framework” contract with the SG, for “publishing, printing, design and associated services”.

Back in August, I observed that

the decision not to submit this to competitive tendering must surely have to had to be put through the legal wringer, given how it stretches the interpretation of the terms of the existing call-off contract and that it is so large in value.

The existence of that legal wringer is now confirmed, and its cost.

A competitive tendering exercise would have meant some delay. SG would have to say how much time a competition would have added to the process, but it would be a matter of months not years.  Even so, it was presumably enough to jeopardise meeting the commitment in the SNP manifesto that scheme would start nationally in the summer of 2017.

A report in the Times today notes:

The box is one of the policies that Ms Sturgeon is most proud of. The first minister drove the idea through from the first plans to implementation

Was £92,000 spent only in order to avoid politically unwanted delays? That looks possible. The sum at stake is small change in the overall government budget. But it’s also not nothing. Deciding to spend that much public money on legal advice is never a trivial decision.

Whether there was a larger cost to how this was handled is more unknowable. The theory of competitive tendering is that it saves money, for example by avoiding a single supplier having the public purse over a barrel.  As the SG Procurement pages put it, the purpose of the procurement rules is “ensuring value for money for the taxpayer”. No-one can say how far a competitive process would have brought down the cost. What can be said is that in acting as it did, the Scottish Government was choosing to spend a substantial amount of money specifically in order to avoid testing the water on costs and not just for the first year, but for four years. The contract will not fall to be re-let until the run-up to the next Holyrood elections, for reasons that aren’t obvious.

The budget for 2018-19

In last week’s budget document, an odd arrangement continues from last year, in which baby boxes are listed as part of the Children and Families budget within the Education and Skills portfolio (p71), while the cost is in fact being met by the Health and Sport budget (see the Health tab in the Level 4 spreadsheet linked here:  baby boxes contribute to producing the total shown for Early Years in Table 5.03 on p57 of the main budget document). Having now done this twice, the SG must for some reason prefer this to matching the words accurately with the numbers. The Parliament did not complain last year about the implications for scrutiny of this confusion, even though it involves switching between Ministers and parliamentary committees.  Unless MSPs make an issue of it, it looks likely to become embedded.

The budgeted sum is £8m in 2018-19, although the FoI response above shows planned spend in 2018-19 of £8.8m, in line with the amount APS is contracted to receive. So for some reason SG is under-budgeting by 9%/£0.8m in the figures provided for parliamentary scrutiny, compared to the figures it is holding. 

Who profits?

In health policy, the use of public spending to pay private providers is sensitive. So the location of this spending in the health budget is salient. 99% of baby box spending has been direct to private suppliers and this will continue. The FoI response explains that the payment to APS covers:

Baby Box contents, Distribution Centre Activity, Delivery Charges, Contract Management, Customer Contact Centre costs, Print costs, Operating Margin.

Operating margin is in effect profit: APS is a private firm, after all. Further, this contract involves a lot of stuff that’s not APS’s normal business, on a large scale relative to its pre-box turnover, so  quite a lot of sub-contracting, involving even more people’s profit margins, seems likely.

So that’s £8m (if you are an MSP), or nearly £9m (if you are anyone else) a year now being spent from the health budget directly in the private sector. Of course masses of the health budget already ends up with the private companies who supply the NHS. Here however a new national service provided out of the health budget is being commissioned by central government from a for-profit organisation, which is delivering it (literally, for once) direct to individuals, with private profit being extracted at various points. It may be a model with merits in this case, and I suspect most people won’t be bothered. But it’s curiously at odds with a more familiar government rhetoric which positions any form of privatisation as a threat to essence of a public health service, even when  services remain free.  (Opticians, dentists, pharmacists and some GPs occupy a blind spot here already, I realise.)


Whether or not this was a policy the FM had driven personally, the precedents being set here would deserve attention: direct private contracting by government for a new national service out of the health budget, costly effort to avoid competitive tendering, repeated inaccurate description to parliament of which bit of government is responsible for providing the money, and under-budgeting.

I think MSPs should make a fuss if the budget materials provided to them are not factually correct, as a matter of principle, regardless of the policy or scale.  But on this one they didn’t last year, as far as I know, so the government may be banking on a further free pass. The award of the contract to APS has not caused the government much parliamentary discomfort either. So it’s doubtful the decision to spend so much money on legal advice, to all appearances just to avoid several politically-unwanted months delay to implementation, will attract much criticism. As reports of positive responses from parents to getting a box build up, scrutiny of the policy process may look increasingly irrelevant to the media and politicians of all shades.

Perhaps opposition parties will be tempted to bank the precedents being set here for their own future use: you can see why they might. The current administration would not be the first to find the constraints involved in contracting rules frustrating, or to want as much freedom as possible in how they report figures to the Parliament.

For  all sorts of reasons, the baby box policy continues to be a fascinating case study in the operation and scrutiny of government policy-making in contemporary Scotland.

Student support review #7: more trouble with comparisons

This post adds a substantial new item to the list of problematic ways the recent review of student support in Scotland has invoked cross-UK comparisons. In this case it has done so by ignoring half the relevant Scots and getting some figures for the other devolved nations wrong.

If readers sense a degree of exasperation at the game of comparative whack-a-mole associated with this report, they would be right.  It’s a distraction from what really matters – but it’s that very distracting quality which makes it hard to ignore.

Debt at low incomes across the UK

The report of the student funding review as originally published on 20 November contained this table (at page 30), which appears to rank UK nations by the amount of total debt expected for students on the lowest incomes, living at home.

Source: Student funding report as originally published 30 Nov 2017

review original comp table

Something looked immediately wrong: at the launch, I quietly alerted the review team to the Welsh fee figure being too high (it should be £9,000, and thus the total debt £6,824): the on-line version has since been corrected for this. But more generally the figures looked too high to be the “living at home” rates – Wales and Northern Ireland especially caught my eye.

Coming back to this more slowly, I turn out to have been wrong about Wales, where I’d failed to keep up with this year’s increase. But the Northern Irish figures are indeed well out. Northern Irish  maintenance debt is shown at double the correct amount for those on maximum support, and total debt is therefore overstated by £1887.  See Footnote 1 below.

This is not the most fundamental problem with this table, however. There is a greater flaw which becomes clear on re-reading. It only shows the figures applying for Scottish students classified as “Young”. It omits those Scots treated as “Independent”, who have higher expected debt. 

Ignoring this group is very hard to defend, if your aim is to give readers an accurate picture of how the Scottish system compares with others for those at the lowest incomes, because independent students will be around half of all those entitled to maximum support: see Footnote 2.  They will include many of the people facing the most challenging immediate financial circumstances.

Indeed, as the report notes on page 40, even the description in the table is not quite right, because some students under 25 are classified as independent (the report notes those with children, those who have been self-supporting for some time; other examples include those living with a partner: page 53 here.)

I feel bad that I didn’t immediately spot this omission, even skimming an 84 page document while also trying to listen to the presentation.

Assuming the final report was actually cleared by the group, I’m completely baffled as to how fourteen people who had spent a year reviewing student support managed to agree a document containing a table purporting to make cross-UK comparisons for low income students which missed out half that group in Scotland. The separate arrangements for young and independent students in Scotland are laid out, without commentary, 4 pages earlier in the text.

The table corrected

This is what happens if the Northern Irish and Welsh figures are corrected, and Scottish independent students welcomed back into the fold of those we care about enough to mention. New or changed figures in bold.

revised student support review table (LHB)

And look.  Young Scots still have least debt, but the Northern Irish leapfrog Independent Scots. It ceases to be true that Scotland always has the lowest debt for those at the lowest incomes: it depends on your age and other things. Also, the figures for all four groups of students in the devolved nations are more obviously closely bunched.

A fair-minded person should point out here that the low debt in Northern Ireland is achieved by not giving students nearly as much to live on. But applying that logic, as Northern Ireland slips down the table, Wales jumps to second place: borrowing there is £74 higher than for independent students from Scotland, but total maintenance support is £314 more.

Whichever way you look at it, low income independent students in Scotland – half the membership of the “maximum support” group in Scotland – borrow more than those in one of the other devolved nations.

Perhaps it’s different if you look at the rates for those living away? Those are arguably more important to compare.  Young and independent students from Scotland do then both have less total debt than all the rest: but the “Wales problem” persists – low income students from there borrow £1638 more than Scottish independent students, but have £1878 more to spend as a result (see Footnote 3).

Why is the table included?

The table is included to back up this statement (emphasis added):

Before describing our recommendations, it is important to understand the context of student loans as they currently operate in Scotland, including comparisons with other parts of the United Kingdom.

Currently Scottish students studying undergraduate higher education courses in Scotland are at an advantage over other students in the rest of the United Kingdom. This is partly because they do not have to pay any tuition fees which are funded by the Scottish Government. As a result, the total maximum annual borrowing of students in Scotland is lower than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, as shown in the table below:

The highlighted statement is actually true: the trouble is that the table above doesn’t show maximum annual borrowing, it shows the borrowing associated with getting the maximum support.  These are not the same.

In Northern Ireland and Wales debt rises as income rises.  The maximum debt is incurred in Scotland and England at the lowest incomes, but in Northern Ireland debt is at its highest once income reaches just over £41,000 and in Wales it peaks at incomes of around £50,000 (see Footnote 4).

Thus, the table that matches the words does give Scotland an unambiguous place at the top of the league table. But it also inconveniently brings out that Scotland currently shares with England a system designed to indebt the most those who start with least, and that Wales and Northern Ireland don’t.

The importance of being careful

Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell comes to mind.

To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

Just taking this table on its own terms and ignoring the dislocation from the text, it:

  • overestimated the debt in Wales a bit (just enough, as it happens, to affect the comparison with Scottish independent students)
  • overestimated debt in Northern Ireland spectacularly
  • omitted the c50% of  Scots on maximum support who face the highest debts

The first of these I raised privately with the review team on 20 November, thinking it was one minor error. I spontaneously said then I wouldn’t mention this as a criticism (accidents happen), and I am sorry now to break that promise. But it turns out to form part of a pattern of errors and omissions which all tend the same way. Collectively, these result in a table showing a sharper distinction in annual borrowing between Scotland and the rest of the UK than justified. That’s before even getting into the 3 year/4 year degree issue, about which the review says nothing.

The Welsh fee level for in-country students in 2017-18 has been public knowledge since September 2016 (if you remember seeing something about it going up by £295, that was a plan for 2018-19, abandoned in mid-October). The Northern Irish arrangements are set out in this leaflet. None of this required so much research to get right. A government-sponsored review could always have run the figures past the other governments, indeed.

Part of larger picture

This comes on top (see here) of

  • a straightforwardly incorrect claim in the report that Scotland currently has the best loan repayment rules in the UK; and
  • a claim that it will do so in the future, which is far from self-evident, and requires detailed substantiation which isn’t provided.

Indeed, immediately after the table discussed above, the report includes another comparing loan repayment rules between Scotland and England, omitting Wales and Northern Ireland, and commenting only on the element where Scotland has a more favourable regime than England (interest rates) and saying nothing about the two elements it shows (repayment threshold and write-off period) where it doesn’t.

All this comes after a claim used in the PR round the report, but not the report itself, that the review’s recommended model is superior in a more general way to UK systems, which I think the review team struggled to back up when asked, putting it kindly: but you can judge for yourself – see here.

What’s going on?

The review has proved itself to be rather fonder of making superlative comparative claims about the funding position in Scotland than in presenting the evidence needed to support them.

Any of these, and other things besides, may be relevant:

  • The review’s Finance Sub-Group consisted only of Scottish government officials and the Chair (end of Annex E here: all the other review sub-groups had at least a few other members of the main review group). The full group met 8 times that we know of, with the 7 meetings for which minutes are available lasting one hour: see here. Opportunities for the review group to explore collectively the financial assertions put to it look to have been limited.
  • Related to this, it seems likely the report had to be cleared by members very quickly, if indeed the final text was seen by everyone, which I start to wonder about: small signs of this include typos in the heading of the table discussed above.
  • The Scottish government likes these kind of comparative claims. The review may have been concerned to package its findings in ways which offered Ministers potentially appealing lines (I will mention again the hiring of Charlotte Street Partners to do media work around the launch of the review).
  • The review may have been relying on others to provide it with information or briefing it didn’t have the capacity to check: I see more and more signs this process was under-resourced.
  • What it was given by others just wasn’t right, for whatever reason – anything from deliberate skulduggery (I would hope not) to simple error (never under-estimate the scope for simple error in government). However, errors always look more accidental if they don’t all tend the same way: I worry especially about that grey zone, where a figure isn’t properly checked, because it feels like what you want to be true.
  • Related to that, collective belief in Scotland just being best, because… well, just because.  We have free tuition. Our ministers are good at giving heart-felt speeches about fairness. Look, how much do we really need to check the numbers?

Whatever explains it, the result is the same: a mild air of triumphalism which obscures hard-to-defend elements of the system, in this particular case, that some of the most financial vulnerable and disadvantaged students in Scotland are given even less grant and more debt than others. On the young/independent difference, the review

  • includes a table showing the difference between independent and young students on page 26, but at no point discusses this difference,
  • makes a general statement on page 40 that “The Board considers it important that both independent and estranged students are treated in a similar way to other groups of students”, but
  • recommends on page 12 an option involving no change to any of the current levels of higher education bursaries.



I am getting fed up with unpicking questionable comparisons. I certainly didn’t expect it to be such a large part of assessing the findings of an independent review. It is just very disappointing.  Does it matter? I think so, because I reckon it fosters political (and official?) complacency and the dismissal of uncomfortable evidence.

I’d prefer us to look at the Scottish system in its own right and ask what’s the best we can do now, with what we’ve got?  The review was a chance to dig deep, to look at ourselves honestly in a brightly lit mirror, to move the debate out of rhetorical flourish and onto more substantial territory, drawing on solid evidence, where needed. To stop using what other people are (or at least are asserted to be) doing to deflect scrutiny of the full effects what we are choosing to do ourselves. To use comparisons to help our understanding about the range of choices and their consequences, not to play down difficult features of our system.

Thus, to repeat, we give those coming into HE from the lowest income households only £1,875, or even just £875, in non-repayable grants and ask them to borrow the rest of what they need to live on. We could easily give them more grant, but we prefer to use that money to keep the children of the professional classes out of any debt whatsoever for fees (and often, therefore, any debt at all). And we use UK comparisons to reassure ourselves – apparently – that that’s OK. “Best”, even.

Once upon a time, I wrote a report on student funding in Scotland, including some analysis of the use and abuse of comparisons.  I called it “The Fairest of Them All?” and ended it with an extract from The Emperor’s New Clothes. Old stories of power, blind eyes and difficulty with unwelcome truths seemed resonant.  The report noted:

The evidence gathered here and the arguments drawn from it may be uncomfortable and counter-intuitive for some readers … In [Andersen’s] story, of course, the townspeople eventually allow themselves to admit the true position. In Scotland, where the most advantaged sections of society are currently sitting very comfortably, it is harder to predict how the story will unfold.

This review was an opportunity – however constrained – for some of the great and the good (no-one likes being called that, but any review members still reading will have to bear with me on this as being a reasonable description of most of them) to use their independent standing and collective voice to encourage the telling of a new, more self-critical type of story, which consistently put the treatment of the most financially vulnerable at its centre.

Only NUS Scotland, who the report noted pressed for a higher grant option at least to be costed and included, and has called the current system “broken”, seems inclined to stir things up. But  generally the old narrative of “bestness” evidently still holds considerable appeal.


Footnote 1: Northern Ireland

The Northern Irish arrangements are clearly summarised here (p12).

Someone seems to have seen a reference to a “maximum loan” of £3,750 in NI for students living at home but failed to appreciate that this amount is only a starting point. Actual loan entitlement depends on the amount of grant a student receives: “if you receive a Maintenance Grant, we will reduce the amount of Maintenance Loan available to you” as the leaflet puts it. The system has worked this way in Northern Ireland for years. The table in the Scottish report shows a combination of maintenance grant and loan that never occurs in the NI system.

NI 2017-18

In exceptional cases, a rule is applied where students get the full amount of grant and it does not reduce loan. Then, the grant is reclassified as “special support grant”: for technical reasons, this reduces problematic interaction with the benefit system, in cases where that is relevant.  This system is used in NI, Wales and England and the review report indeed recommends in a different section that Scotland should consider adopting it too.  You could argue that the NI loan figure is therefore OK because this combination of grant and loan would hold for a student on special support grant: but it would be a heroic line to take, as then the Welsh figures would also need to be changed, for consistency, the table heading (“maintenance grant”) would be wrong and the comparison would exclude most students from low incomes in these countries.

Footnote 2: Independent students as % of those on maximum support

[Updated 4 December: minor wording changes to make clearer, in response to a question from a reader]

The official statistics (Table 8) record 17,890 students on Independent Student Bursary (ISB) in 2016-17. ISB was only available to those declaring household incomes below £19,000.

The other means-tested bursary, Young Student Bursary (YSB), was claimed by 31,220 but this includes some students on less than the full rate of YSB, and therefore not entitled to maximum level of total support. They come from incomes between £19,000 and £33,999.

The  statistics (Table A6) also show that 24,915 students who received either type of  means-tested bursary declared an income of less than £19,000, and a further 10,515   received the max bursary without being required to demonstrate the precise level of their low income. There’s a further group of 1,580 who weren’t asked to demonstrate their income, but got less than the full bursary: I suspect this includes quite a few people who dropped out mid-year.  The best available estimate of those falling within the group entitled to maximum support is therefore 37,010.

On these rough assumptions, those on ISB accounted for 48% of all those on the maximum rate of support. This calculation is a bit rough, but near enough for “around half” to be used as a reliable description.

Footnote 3: Away rates

The table below reworks the one published, but uses the rates for those living away from home.

away borrowing comp

Footnote 4: Maximum borrowing

The students facing the maximum borrowing are those from the lowest income households in Scotland and in England. In Northern Ireland, borrowing is highest for those above the cut off for grant. In Wales, borrowing peaks at around £50,000: this is the point where grant entitlement stops and before some loan entitlement is further withdrawn, under the system currently used there.

max debt 2017-18

“Brexit Blamed for Fall in EU Students”: should it be?

[Posted 29 November and updated, as marked, 30 November]

A press release issued yesterday by Jeane Freeman (SG Minister for Social Security, but acting here in her capacity as an MSP) was headlined “Brexit blamed for fall in EU students”. The press release accurately noted that UCAS had identified Brexit as a likely factor in the 4.4% fall in applicants to UK universities from the EU in 2017 and argued  (emphasis added):

it is concerning that the UK has become an increasingly less popular destination for EU students since the Brexit vote last year. This is bad news for our universities and for the wider Scottish economy, which is boosted by hundreds of millions of pounds generated by EU students each year.

The Tories’ increasingly insular approach to the world and the endless uncertainty they have created for EU citizens living here in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley is damaging the UK’s reputation, our economy and future prosperity, and the SNP will do all in its power to protect EU citizens in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley and continue making Scotland an attractive place to work and study.

The same highlighted line was used verbatim by the convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee to The National.

Screenshot 2017-11-29 at 09.49.49

I suspect those highlighted words will be seen again. 

How safe it is to assume that a fall in actual EU students (as opposed to applicants – see below) is mainly due to Brexit? Surprisingly, it is possible to take a reasonable stab at answering this, and the answer is almost certainly “mostly not”.  Most of the fall appears to be due instead to something mysterious going on this year in Scottish universities.

Applications vs applicants vs actual students

There are three sets of numbers here

  • Applicants  – the figure which has dropped by 4.4% across the UK – are the individuals interested in attending university.
  • Applications are the number of different approaches these people make to universities (in 2016 and in 2017, the average number of applications per EU applicant was just over 4).
  • Then there are those who have a successful application. The measures discussed here are “placed applicants” and “acceptances“.   These are both defined by UCAS as someone who has been “placed for entry” into HE: “acceptances” is used once the admissions cycle is complete.

The last is the nearest we have to actual students (not identical, as some placed applicants may not actually show up, and some may somehow bypass UCAS, but it’s very close). This is the group that matters if you are interested in the effect on the economy.

The UCAS press release  notes the fall in “placed applicants” from the EU in UK universities is at 2.1%, around half the fall in applications. It is still a fall, however. 

EU applications, applicants and acceptances across the UK

This week’s UCAS figures only provide some UK-wide totals, so it’s necessary to look at some earlier numbers to get an idea of the variety of underlying patterns across the UK.

The tables at the foot of this post give the most recent data we  have on EU applications and placed applicants in different parts of the UK this year, from June (for applications) and September (for placed applicants). UCAS doesn’t appear to publish nation-by-nation data on EU applicants (surprisingly, I may be missing it) [Update 30 Nov: I was, but it doesn’t change the picture – note added atfoot of post], so I’m using changes in applications as a proxy: the ratio between the two appears reasonably stable across the two years at UK level, which is the only level at which I can measure it.

At the level of the four UK nations the best data we have at present suggest that changes in actual placed applicants this year bear little relationship to changes in applications.


Screenshot 2017-11-29 at 11.58.05


Applications fell in Northern Ireland and Wales, but placed applicants rose. In England, placed applicants fell (by 1%), but by substantially less than the fall in applications.

In these three nations,  universities appear to have become more willing to accept applications from the EU, off-setting the fall in applicants. The total fall in placed applicants across the rest of the UK as at 14 September was 130 or 0.5%.

By contrast, Scotland saw the smallest fall in applications but much the largest fall in placed applicants. Uniquely in the UK, Scottish universities appear suddenly to have become (much) less willing to accept applications from EU students, taking 560 fewer or 12.2% less.

As a result,  Scotland accounted for 85% (560/690) of the drop in placed EU applicants in the UK, as known in September.

Of course things could have changed since then. But this week’s UCAS figures record a UK total of 30,540 EU acceptances, compared to 29,850 placed applicants in September, an increase of 2.9%. It would have taken some extraordinary re-shuffling in the last few weeks to change the general picture above.

Brexit … or something else?

Brexit affects the whole of the UK. Something else seems to be going on here, specifically affecting Scotland.

Maybe EU students applying both to Scottish  and rUK universities have had just as many offers as ever from Scotland, but for some reason this year have been more likely to turn them down in favour of ones from institutions in the other UK nations. I’m pretty doubtful about that, but for now it remains a theoretical possibility.

Far more likely is that Scottish institutions have become less likely to make offers to EU students. This might be system wide, or an effect concentrated in those institutions which recruit most heavily from the EU.

There’s an obvious reason why this might have happened. Universities in Scotland are subject to new government targets to widen access, but the system is not being expanded, because the policy of free tuition makes it expensive for the Scottish government to put in more places.  To admit more people from disadvantaged backgrounds, universities must either therefore admit fewer Scots from less disadvantaged postcodes, or take fewer entrants from the EU, the other group who qualify for funded places (rUK and overseas students are irrelevant to all this).

Over the past year or so, there’s been quite a lot of concern expressed about the potential for the “displacement” of students from less disadvantaged areas to accommodate growth in those from more disadvantaged postcodes.  That the acceptance rate (the success rate for applications, in effect) for 18 year old Scots has dropped to a historic low in recent years has also become more widely known.  In addition, EU students cannot count to the achievement of the new SIMD-based access targets (as SIMD is a Scottish area measure) but in some circumstances may be counted in the baseline of all home students: when/if that happens, their recruitment will automatically dilute the achievement of access targets.

So the big drop in EU admissions specifically in Scotland this year could be due to a change in admissions practices across the sector which has reduced the likelihood of EU students getting an offer. One possibility suggested by someone who knows more than me about the technicalities of  admissions (not hard) is that more places are being filled by unconditional offers, which tend to go to Scots, leaving fewer for conditional offers, apparently commonly used for EU students.

If that’s what’s going on, most of the fall in actual EU students in the UK this year would have nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with the pincer effect of two Scottish policies – free tuition (and thus capping) and the drive to widen access.

Is this good or bad?

Ms Freeman and Mr Dornan are concerned at the economic impact of the loss of EU students.

However, Ms Freeman, and the Scottish Government, have both welcomed the 2.4% (850) increase in Scots admitted to university this year, most of which appears to have been enabled by taking fewer people from the EU.

So there’s a tension here, explicit in the full Freeman statement. The SG, perhaps more alert to the two-sides-of-same-coin issue, has not made the same argument about the fall in EU numbers (as far as I have seen).


We need to see the final figures next month for EU applications and acceptances by UK nation to confirm the pattern in the summer/autumn data.

However, though a fall in applicants may be attributable to Brexit,  at the moment something quite different – the response of universities in Scotland to the interaction of the Scottish government’s fee and access policies – appears more likely to be driving most of the fall in actual EU university entrants this year across the UK.


After writing this I found this story, which includes this quote from the Minister for Employability and Training, Jamie Hepburn.

Scotland’s Minister for Employability and Training Jamie Hepburn said ministers were “deeply concerned” by the fall in applications, which he blamed on the Government’s decision to pursue a hard Brexit outside the single market. “While Scotland fares better than England when it comes to attracting EU domiciles, it is still worrying to see this decrease in applicants, the damaging reality of Brexit,” he added.

It turns out to be based on an SG newsrelease (emphasis added)

It has to be said that while we welcome international students from out with the EU we are deeply concerned that these latest statistics also show a decrease of 4% in the number of applicants from the EU. While Scotland fares better than England when it comes to attracting EU domiciles, it is still worrying to see this decrease in applicants, the damaging reality of Brexit. We are urging the UK Government to ditch their hard Brexit model which will no doubt have a hugely negative impact on areas such as Higher Education, not only in Scotland but also in the rest of the UK.

So the tension between deploring a drop in EU students and welcoming the rise in Scots made possible by that goes right to the heart of the official government position.


Table 1 EU Applications at June 30

2016 2017 %
Eng 169130 158540 -6.26%
NI 3210 2980 -7.17%
Scot 47570 45490 -4.37%
Wales 8010 7590 -5.24%
UK 227920 214580 -5.85%

Table 2 EU Placed applicants at end of clearing (14 Sept in 2017)

2016 2017 Nos %
Eng 24200 23970 -230 -0.95%
NI 340 370 30 8.82%
Scot 4610 4050 -560 -12.15%
Wales 1390 1460 70 5.04%
UK 30540 29850 -690 -2.26%

Table 3 Percentage share of the fall in EU placed applicants between 2016 and 2017 (from Table 2 above)

Eng 35.38%
NI -4.62%
Scot 86.15%
Wales -10.77%

Change between September and November EU placed applicant/acceptance figures (all UK) comparing total from Table 2 and figures from page 7

2016 2017 Change: nos Change: %
Sept (placed applicants) 30540 29850 -690 -2.26%
Nov (acceptances) 31350 30700 -650 -2.07%
Nov as % Sept 102.65% 102.85%

EU Applications (as at June 30) per applicant (as reported at end of cycle): all UK

(from Table 1 above and figures p6

2016 2017
Applicants 53560 51185
Applications 227920 214580
Applications/applicant 4.3 4.2


Update for EU applicant data by nation

I missed this UCAS note which gives EU applicants by UK nation as at 30 June.

The changes are similar as for applications and produce the graph below, which closely ressembles the one for applications, above.

Screenshot 2017-11-30 at 16.11.13.png








UCAS data: an endlessly flexible source for governments

Today UCAS released some of the data which will end up in its full 2017 End of Cycle report. Its reporting provides a great example of the endless flexibility of UCAS data as a source of headlines, and the SG’s flexibility on whether UCAS is a source of comparable cross-UK figures


The SG has taken a pretty hard line in the last 18 months on how UCAS’s coverage is too incomplete in Scotland to make comparisons reliable.  The line has run across government: here for example is the Cabinet Secretary for Culture in July this year.


The caveat about the higher proportion of HE students in Scotland who are outside UCAS, because they are doing shorter HE courses in college, such as HNs, has become increasingly prominent in UCAS publication in the past few years: it is the very first thing you will read in a couple of the documents published today.

I ended up writing a piece defending UCAS as a source of comparable data a while ago, because the force of rebuttal was so strong.  I’ve discussed the same question on More or Less. I have argued that these figures have limitations, but remain useful especially as a source of comparative information on entry into university direct from school: the “non-comparable” argument is too sweepingly dismissive.

So today’s SG news release was a bit of a surprise. It’s worth quoting in full (emphasis added).

UCAS figures also show highest ever acceptances to Scottish universities.


A record number of Scots were accepted to a UK university in 2017, figures published today show.

Over 36,500 Scottish domiciled applicants accepted a place for this academic year – an increase of over 850 or 2.4%.

All other UK countries saw a decrease in the number of their residents accepted to university.

The figures were released by UCAS in their first End of Cycle Report 2017. It also shows a record number of all applicants accepted to Scottish higher education institutions in 2017 – up 1.7%.

Further and Higher Education Minister, Shirley-Anne Somerville, said:

“It is great to see that Scotland is bucking the trend across the UK, with more of our prospective students securing a place at university. This follows on from the record numbers last year.

It shows that our education system is supporting an increasing number of people to access higher education – giving them the skills they need to succeed.

“This is also another record year for Scotland’s universities, with the highest ever number of applicants accepted to study here. It is testament to the fact that Scotland remains a destination of choice for students, due in no small part to the reputation for excellence that our institutions have worked hard to achieve.”


The UCAS Undergraduate End of Cycle Report 2017, Applicants and acceptances, patterns by age is published by UCAS.

Can figures which don’t include colleges show “that our education system is supporting an increasing number of people to access higher education“? Well, no:  for exactly the reasons the SG has previously argued, to make a claim about all forms of HE we would need to know the trends in college entry too, and the SG does not publish those in the same way.

The government is on safer ground with their cross-UK comparisons of university entry (as others were before) because this is what UCAS covers.  But again, on their previous strict reading of comparability, without knowing what’s happened with non-UCAS college-to-university movement, even there the picture is incomplete. I would guess that it’s unlikely this has fallen and it’s more likely also to be rising. But we don’t know that from these figures. Nor at the moment will the SG from any others, to the best of my understanding.

Anyway, comparisons are back in fashion and that’s generally more sensible than the all-out rubbishing of UCAS figures for this purpose. But a touch more consistency would be good.

Ups and downs

The success of the Scottish government in getting its news lines to provide the Scottish copy on this was evident. Its lines were prominently reported: it is likely that reflects the Press Association’s circular, but I don’t know.  These are the pieces I have so far found:

In isolation, the SG news release leaves a sense that everyone else is going to hell in a handcart.

Yet UCAS observed in its press release that

A record proportion of 18 year olds, from across the UK, gained a place at university or college in 2017. This is despite a fall of 1.2 per cent in the 18 year old population in the UK in 2017. … The entry rate for 18 year olds in England increased by 0.8 percentage points to 33.3 per cent, whilst the entry rate for the same group in Scotland increased by 0.6 percentage points to 25.9 per cent. The entry rate for Northern Ireland decreased by 0.4 percentage points to 34.5 per cent, and for Wales it fell 0.1 percentage points to 29.4 per cent.

I’ve not seen any of this picked up in Scottish reports (although I can’t see past the Times’ paywall: its headline follows the SG’s news release.)

Dig further, and UCAS adds
There were 207,920 acceptances from 18 year olds from England in 2017, the
highest number on record. This is 3,075 (+1.5 per cent) higher than the number of
acceptances in 2016. England was the only UK country which had an increase in
the number of 18 year old acceptances in 2017. The number of 18 year old acceptances from Scotland remained unchanged from last year, at 14,875.
The number of 18 year old acceptances from Wales and Northern Ireland fell in
UCAS looks at the “cohort entry rate” for those who were 18 last year, which brings together entry at 18 or 19 for that group. This rose in every country.
These increases resulted in the  highest cohort entry rates ever recorded for England, Scotland , and Wales. For England, Northern Ireland, and Wales the increases were driven by higher proportions of 18 year olds entering HE in 2016 , while in Scotland it was driven by an increase in both the 18 year old entry rate in 2016, and an increase in the first time 19 year old entry rate in 2017.
The graph is useful here
Young entry
The increase in the Scottish 19 year old figure probably reflects more people being included in the figures who are moving from college to university, having already done an HN. Some of that could in theory be due to more of these transfers being handled through UCAS, rather than an increase in actual transfers. But it’s impossible to tell how far that is having any significant influence on the numbers, and other data have shown a general rise in college to university movement in past recent years.

Over the longer term, UCAS notes

In 2017, the 18 year old entry rates for England, Scotland and Wales are substantially higher than at the beginning of the reporting period in 2006. In England, 18 year olds were 35 per cent more likely to enter higher education compared to 11 years ago, while in Scotland and Wales they were 17 per cent more likely.

England’s all-age figures were particularly pulled down, it appears, by the sharp drop in older entrants to nursing. This happened just as the UK government introduced fees and abolished quite high grants for this group in a single step.

UCAS notes in its Executive Summary

In England, record high 18 year old entry rates every year since 2013 have placed  downward pressure on the number of 19 year olds applying, and consequently
being accepted. This, in combination with changes to student support arrangements for those starting nursing courses in England, and a favourable employment market, will all have played a role in the drop in applications and acceptances from older age groups this year. These falls mean that, for the first time since 2012, overall UK acceptances have decreased . However, this 0.5 per cent decrease still puts UK acceptances at the third highest on record.

 It adds elsewhere

The larger falls among older age groups were, in part, due to the fall in applicants to
nursing courses in England. As reported in June, there was a 23 per cent reduction
in applicants from England to nursing courses this year. Because nursing applicants
account for a large proportion of all applicants, from older age groups (40 per cent of main scheme applicants aged 25 and over applied to nursing in 2016), the patterns for nursing will have had a large impact on the overall patterns shown in Figure 2.1.
The full picture across the UK is clearly more complex than the SG news release and most of its reporting suggested.  It wasn’t SG’s job to provide that information, but the limited ability of the press here who chose to report these numbers to put them in context is very apparent.

Particularly good news stories for Scotland that were missed

Interestingly, although the SG highlighted that Scottish providers saw a +1.7% increase of entrants from all domiciles, it  did not note this was the highest in any part of the UK (page11 here).

It also could have noted that Scotland saw the sharpest increase in acceptance (in effect, success) rates for 18 years olds: however, this is from  a base which was historically low, and remains well below the English and Welsh position. As argued elsewhere, this is likely to be due to the more limited capacity of the Scottish system to expand in line with rising demand. Northern Ireland has a similar problem.

acceptance rates

What’s going on?

The last set of figures we had from UCAS showed that Scotland was very unusual in seeing a fall in entrants from the EU this year.

eu in UK

We don’t have the new figures for Scotland broken down by domicile, yet (we should next month). But it would take a big shift in a short time for this to have changed. It seems likely therefore that for some reason universities in Scotland, specifically, have admitted far fewer EU students this year.  We don’t yet know if this was due to a particularly sharp drop in applicants from the EU, or some change in university admissions practice north of the border.

This would have left more room for Scots, with whom EU students compete for funded places. Relatively few Scots go outside Scotland to study, so the chances are that that 2.4% rise for Scots across the UK is close to figure for Scots in Scotland.  So the SG can fairly  point to the rise in Scottish domiciled students (it would be criticised for a fall, after all). But it’s probably not SG policy that’s mainly responsible for that but the – as yet – unexplained drop in EU students here, after many years in which their numbers have risen much faster than those for Scottish entrants.

Meantime, older students in England have taken a particular hit, part of which seems likely to be directly due to local policy, affecting a specific group (nurses). It’s also possible that the abolition of grants in England is having some effect on this group in particular: that needs more thought and analysis. Once the other devolved nations are added, the complexities of possible causes for differences multiply. Are the Welsh figures affected by people hanging back for the post-Diamond changes next year, which will involve higher fees but also higher grants, as part of a general increase in the combined value of loans and grants for maintenance?

Looking at UCAS data across the UK functions mainly as a reminder of how complicated the relationship between policy and changing numbers can be.


The need to turn complicated UCAS data into instant headlines puts an increasingly strained conventional media under enormous pressure to look for (or pick up) relatively simple accounts. The variety of things which can be lifted from the figures means that it would be a flat-footed government that couldn’t find something to put in a headline.

This year UCAS has made things a bit easier, by having a phased release: today’s figures will be followed up by a further fuller briefing next month.  That gives everyone time to digest this set ahead of the next round of headlines, which ought to cover things like entry by area disadvantage (SIMD in Scotland) and provide figures for different domiciles in each UK nation.

Whether the SG will hold on to its rediscovered willingness to compare UCAS numbers at that point is impossible to say. But it will be interesting to watch.

How should the SG count money that has to be paid back? Consistently would be a start.

On Wednesday, the Scottish Government issued a press release about its budget settlement for 2018-19, which included this (emphasis added):

Of the additional money the UK Government announced as being added to Scotland’s budget, over half of it – £1.1bn – are financial transactions which the Scottish Government cannot spend on frontline public services, and which have to be repaid to the Treasury.

At FMQs the next day, the First Minister developed this theme (emphasis added)

Let me explain exactly why the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement in the budget yesterday is accurately described as a con, because I was watching. He stood up and said, without qualification, that his budget would deliver an extra £2 billion for Scotland.


Not only is it the case that this money, in the words of the Fraser of Allander institute,  “can’t be used to support day-to-day spending on public services”, it has to be repaid by the Scottish Government to the UK Government.


Although the budget provides some consequentials, more than half of those are financial transactions, which the Scottish Government cannot spend on front-line public services and which have to be repaid to the Treasury.

A little later in the same session, the FM was asked about the student support review which had reported on Monday. She noted (emphasis added):

I do not disagree with Iain Gray about the importance of the issue [the balance between loans and grants], but the level of total student support is now up. The average support per student is now up, more full-time higher education students than ever are receiving support and almost 3,000 additional students qualified for a non-repayable bursary or saw their funding increase last year.

Now, it’s true, as the FM went on to say, that there was a small annual rise in non-repayable funding in 2016-17 (which slightly reversed large cuts made in 2013-14, which she didn’t say).

However, when the SG uses “support” it uses it to mean everything paid to students for their living costs, as grant or loan. Exhibit A in this argument is this news release from 22 August 2012, which announced – “without qualification”, as it were – increases in “support” entirely provided through loans, while forgetting to mention a one-third parallel cut in student grants.  More recently this one described how postgraduate “support” was rising,  referring again only to increases in loans.  Many other examples of this language are scattered in news releases and parliamentary comments. Over the past decade, “support” is only up because of loans (see Footnote 1), which of course have to be repaid (emphasis added).

You’ve probably worked out where this piece is heading.

We are not good at discussing how money that is on loan fits in the public finances. Is it real money we/students should be glad of? Is it not? The Scottish government has just presented an extreme case of contradictory perspectives, in one session of FMQs. But the FM also hinted at the way out.  Funding which includes an element of loan should be described “with qualifications”. Repayable funding is not the same as non-repayable cash, but it is also different from getting nothing (see Footnote 2). Money provided as a loan should be shown separately and acknowledged as a distinctive form of “support”.

So I have some sympathy for the FM’s line that rolling together non-repayable and re-payable support into a single figure is misleading.  I just wish the SG would apply this principle when it talks about the money it gives students.


Footnote 1



Footnote 2: are student loans good or bad?

There’s a place for student loans: they have made it possible to fund a larger system, giving more people opportunities, without large cuts in funding per student for tuition and living costs.  Given the pressure on public services in general, I am doubtful any UK administration could afford to manage without them, or that it would be the right choice to replace them entirely with cash, saving a transformation in the amount of cash governments here have to spend. My argument about recent history in Scotland is that it’s not right for loans, even income-contingent ones,  to land disproportionately on the those who start with least, and that a government which is increasingly reliant on loans for funding students needs to be honest about that. Also, a policy position in which loans for fees are a terrible burden to be avoided at all costs, but the state using loans to help those in most need of help with living costs is a cause for celebration, makes sensible debate of the choices very difficult, while tending to shelter the better-off from debt relative to those from lower incomes.

Footnote 3: write-offs

Outstanding student loan debt is written off, after 35 years at present, if a graduate has earnt too little to have repaid in full by then. I don’t know if any of the “financial transaction” funding in the budget may also be written off in certain circumstances. If not, there’s an argument that the two are not strictly analogous. However, it would not be a great argument. Most student loan in Scotland will be repaid. Also, resting on student loan write-offs in this way exposes a bigger problem with government lines. Write-offs will be much lower in Scotland than England, (a) because amounts borrowed here are less likely to go beyond what graduates will be able to repay in full, and (b) for the time being, the earnings threshold for repayments here is lower, and the write-off period longer.  But Scottish ministers routinely unfavourably compare headline average debt in England with that in Scotland, without explaining that the difference in actual repayments will be less pronounced.


Student support review #6: filling a gap in the review report and the case for accepting its recommendation in HE

As this post noted,  surprisingly the recent report of the Scottish student finance review did not set out what its proposals would mean at different incomes. Nor did it show how entitlements would change at different incomes under its recommendation. This post aims to fill that gap, providing a few charts which are missing from the review report. It argues that although the change is limited, and restricted to increasing loan, there is a case for these changes in HE, especially from the perspective of those at middle incomes.  It also looks at how, on paper at least,  the proposal addresses Scotland’s current regressive distribution of student debt: it argues however that more use of grant would do that better (using the Welsh approach to funding a flat-rate system as an example).

The arguments about loans in FE are not discussed here: they raise different issues.

How entitlements change

The review’s formal recommendation (the”hybrid option”) is considered here, not the “aspirational” higher grant one.  Under the hybrid option,  the review recommends no change to HE grants.

The two graphs below, one for young students and one for independent students who are (and are assumed to remain) on a lower grant rate, show how the recommendation would change loan entitlements in HE at different incomes.

young - review rec

indep- review rec

The proposals for HE have a quite limited impact at the lowest incomes. Mature students tend to fall heavily into the lowest income group, so the changes for them in practice would be particularly limited.

The changes would be more substantial however for those at incomes of £19,000 and over, and especially at £34,000 and up. This would  reduce the pressure on these families to contribute upfront, provided students are willing to borrow more. The amount currently available, especially for those at just over  £34,000, implies a pretty large contribution relative to household income (and the current Scottish system expects substantially more from families at this level than is common in the UK more generally).  This is the real “ability to pay” issue.

In the absence of any other funding there is a case for just releasing this extra loan, especially from the perspective of those at middle incomes: it wouldn’t justify any grandiose claims, but the best shouldn’t be the enemy of the better-than-now and (unlike when grants were cut in 2013) this wouldn’t make lower income students have to borrow more just to stand still, and it ought to go a little way to spreading debt more evenly by income (see below).   It would though sit uncomfortably with the Scottish Government’s long-standing, if increasingly detached from reality, anti-debt rhetoric.

The aspirational higher grant HE option and FE recommendation can’t be modelled, because no information is provided on how the review’s costings assume grant would reduce as income rises, in either case.

Debt distribution

The new model is more progressive on paper, with expected loan now increasing, rather than falling, as income rises. How far the additional loan is taken up at high incomes (and if so, not used as a cheap form of saving for the future) would determine how far changing the model on paper alters the distribution of debt students incur while studying in practice. I think take-up at higher incomes, especially for essential living costs, will be patchy.  But it would still be more than now.

I worry also about nest-egg building by those from high incomes, as a new form of hidden advantage, because of the low interest rate on student loans here. We could apply higher interest to loans to those from better-off households (but we won’t).  Even without that, however, I think on balance this risk is worth taking for a few years, but ideally the use of the new loans at higher incomes would be monitored.

debt by income

As  noted elsewhere, the change would be achieved by increasing debt at middle and higher incomes rather than bringing it down at lower ones. Using grant  to reduce debt at lower incomes would be a more certain way of achieving a less regressive loan distribution.

What happens with higher grant

The Welsh plans for 2018-19 show how the same starting point – a flat-rate support entitlement – can produce a very different assumed levels of debt and debt distribution with more use of maintenance grant.

(Figures for Wales taken from the table on this site, with estimates by this author for the income points not shown.)

The graphs above of course exclude additional borrowing for fees, which adds an additional flat-rate amount at all incomes. But even after that a strong skew will remain. A footnote considers separately how total actual borrowing would compare between the two systems (not that much at low incomes), but that’s a different point, which also reflects different decisions about how much of the cash budget to commit to HE, as well as the split of investment in grants and fees.

The Scottish government could achieve the same targeted effect as above, at no extra cost and retaining its lower average debt levels than Wales. That would mean investing more cash in grants and less in fees. The review was prevented from exploring such options.

One further, important advantage of a high grant approach to providing a flat-rate entitlement is that take up of living cost support is likely to be much higher at low incomes. Even where people are willing to take on fee debt as an unavoidable price of getting into higher education, it’s plausible they will be less willing to take on living cost debt and, say, work excessive hours or limit their choices to what they can do living at home.  Already in Scotland, among young students qualifying for means-tested grant, between a fifth and a quarter don’t use their living cost loan.  The review disappointingly does not acknowledge, far less explore, this.


I don’t understand why the review doesn’t include the income charts at the top of this post.  Equivalent ones are prominent in the Diamond review, from which the review has borrowed its central concept of a flat-rate entitlement, and the required figures must have been available to the review, for them to produce the published costings.  They usefully bring out that in HE it’s those at middle to lowish incomes for whom the decision whether or not to accept the recommendation is likely to matter most. They get a pretty raw deal at the moment with living cost help.

It’s clearer however why the government might prefer these charts not to be in. They  illustrate how much the Scottish system depends on loans to underwrite living costs, and how much the review’s strict remit forces it further down that road.  The charts above throw into sharp relief that the rhetorical  association so often made by Scottish ministers between fees and debt is far from the whole story.


All figures used above are here Student support review_changes by income



Two things affect the comparability of total borrowing between the new Welsh and recommended Scottish system:

  • the addition of fee debt in Wales, at £9,000 for those in country, and
  • different values of total spending for those living at home (£7,650) or away (£9,000), compared to the single Scottish amount of £8,100.

However, the difference in total annual borrowing at the lowest incomes, especially for mature students, will not be very large.  It is close enough that a low-income Welsh mature student who decided to limit themselves to the same £8,100 total as in Scotland would have marginally less final debt after three years (3 x £9,000 = £27,000) than a similar Scot after four years (4 x £7,225 = £28,900).

debt comp

The figures above are for those studying in their home nation. To adjust for border crossing from Wales, add £250. Border crossers from Scotland will have £9,250 more debt.

Student support review #5: changes to loan scheme – welcome, but there’s a dislocation between claims and evidence

The review of student funding was asked to look at changes to the student loan scheme in Scotland.

Its recommendations are:

  • an increase in the loan repayment threshold to £22,000. But it adds “The Scottish Government should consider increasing this to £25,000 based on current proposals in England. This additional increase would cost around £27m per year.”
  • remaining on the current Plan 1 interest rate (lowest of RPI, or 1% over base rate)
  • reducing the period after which debts are written off to 30 years.

These are all welcome steps, very much in line with suggestions which have been floating round in Scotland for some time (here are mine from more than three years ago): all parties but the Greens promised a higher threshold and short write-off period at the last Holyrood elections.

Specifically, the recommendations do not go beyond what was in the SNP manifesto and translated into the current Programme for Government. The only difference is that it is not specific about the timing of the introducing the new threshold, which in PfG and the manifesto was described as being achieved by the end of the current Parliament (2021).

The review makes one new loan-related suggestion, which is to write-off its suggested new FE living cost loans if students move into HE.

Thus the added value of the review to this process has been limited, given this is largely existing policy. But it is useful to have the £27m estimate: I am surprised it is so low, but that may reflect that fewer students here borrow large enough amounts for write-offs to come into play.

Comparative claiming

The review claims that:

should our recommendations be implemented, student loans in Scotland would offer the best terms that are available anywhere in the United Kingdom. (emphasis added)

In similar vein the report says elsewhere that

the Board took a fresh look at the terms of student loans available in Scotland, and worked on enhancements that can be made to ensure that students in Scotland can be offered the best lending terms that are available anywhere in the United Kingdom  (emphasis added)

At Monday’s launch, Scotland having the best loan scheme in the UK was a strong theme. The lower interest rate than England or Wales was quoted several times: this seems to have strongly captured the imagination of the review.  The review does not acknowledge the findings of bodies such as the IFS or economists like Nicholas Barr that interest rate subsidies are most helpful to the highest earners.  But that perhaps is reasonable, given that even with higher borrowing levels the review proposes, more people will continue to fall within the range where their loans are likely to be repaid in full, compared to south of the border.

The argument about loan terms

The report argues the combined effect of the system changes above and lower total amounts of borrowing in Scotland in the absence of fees justify this claim.  However, there is a difficulty with including the last of these. “Terms” (especially “lending terms”) has a specific meaning in relation to loans, of any kind: it refers to the rules under which repayments are calculated, irrespective of the amount borrowed.

Existing terms

The report goes further at one point and claims “Loan terms will remain the best in the United Kingdom” (page 32, emphasis added). But Scotland clearly does not currently have the best loan terms in the UK.

The table at the foot of this post shows that Scotland at present has a combination of the lowest repayment threshold and longest repayment period of any UK nation. At minimum, it logically has to be worse at present than Northern Ireland, which has the same threshold and interest, but writes off sooner.

So “Loan terms will remain the best in the United Kingdom”? You can’t remain being what you aren’t already.  An independent review should not be suggesting what is not true.

Future repayment terms compared

Here the “best in UK” claim needs back-up that the report does not provide.

The comparison with Northern Ireland is easy: Scotland would now be the same for interest and write-off period, but with a higher repayment threshold. Definitely better terms.

The comparison with England and Wales however relies on the trade-off between the impact of a lower interest rate (mostly, but not always, see footnote below) in Scotland against starting repayment £3,000 sooner. Welsh graduates will also have the first £1,500 of the loan written off when they start repayments, which takes a lot of the edge off the extra interest acquired over the period of study. For lower earning graduates, the English or Welsh systems could still be better.  To make the “best” loan terms claim stand up, you need to do some modelling to prove your statement. But none is provided. It is my understanding none has been done.

Most crudely, someone who spends their working life earning more than £22,000 and less than £25,000 would be unambiguously better off in England or Wales. That’s too specific an example to rebut the whole claim: but we need to know how the threshold interacts with the interest rate across earnings deciles more generally for the “best terms” claim to mean anything.  Ideally, the models would be compared using a number of different notional initial debt amounts, to check how sensitive the general comparison is to the total amount borrowed.

In other words, the report makes an assertion for which it fails to provide the necessary evidence. Indeed, it is not clear that the authors realise they need to produce this sort of evidence to back up this sort of assertion.

How about total repayments?

Even if including differences in total debt levels is a red herring in the comparison of repayment terms, it would of course be relevant to a comparison of actual total repayments. It would be a different point, but a perfectly valid one to make.

Again, this claim still needs detailed comparative modelling of the repayments associated with expected borrowing under each scheme. Averages are not very helpful, as there will be so much variation round them by income. So the obvious thing to do would be to compare each system a number of times, using the anticipated final debt for a range of comparable students, from different incomes and therefore with different support packages. An issue here is that though annual borrowing will generally still be lower in Scotland, degrees here are generally a year longer, and in comparing graduates’ likely total repayments it would be artificial to ignore that. For those from low incomes final debt for an honours degree could be very similar in Scotland and Wales: for them, the combined threshold/interest rate trade-off will be the deciding component.

Putting it all together, the review’s recommended option might still mean that Scottish honours graduates who started from low incomes would consistently face lower total lifetime repayments than their English, Welsh and NI counterparts,  but it’s not self-evident. I’ve not even mentioned yet Scottish Parliament modelling in 2013 which showed how, at that point, differences in the loan terms (conventional linguistic usage), including Scotland’s lower threshold, meant the lowest earning Scottish graduates could end up paying back more equivalents from England who had borrowed more than twice as much. Loan repayment comparisons are complicated things.

In other words, to make a robust comparative claim about the combined effect of total debt and new repayment terms needs … proper modelling. And again none is offered and it is my understanding none has been done. At the moment all we have is an unproved assertion.


The apparent muddle between loan terms and total repayments is unhelpful. But my understanding may be wrong, and the review may have seen analysis which backs up it comparative claim in relation to either (though it is plain wrong about the status quo). However, it then needs to show its workings (it still could, of course).  Or it may have jumped to conclusions without having commissioned the necessary analysis: that would be something worse.  It would mean a high-profile claim of the review was built on the sand of an untested assumption of superiority.

There were already signs (see here) from the handling of the launch that review members may be susceptible to falling into a “Scotland The Best” trap – the assumption that one prominent difference in Scotland’s favour simply must mean it is generally better than everyone else at the whole of something.  The one part of the review report where it makes a superiority claim about a specific element of student funding was an opportunity to reassure on this point. But close reading of that section fails to provide that reassurance.



Table:  Current and proposed loan terms in the UK


Scotland now Scotland proposed England and Wales now England and Wales proposed NI now (no changes publicly proposed)
Interest Lowest of RPI or 1% above the BoE rate RPI plus 3% while studying.

After leaving, variable rate dependent upon income.

RPI where income is below repayment threshold.

Rises on a sliding scale up to RPI plus 3% where income is £41,000 or more

As Scotland
Unpaid debt written off after 35 30 30 30 30
Repayment threshold 17,775 22,000 21,000 25,000 17,775




For those earning below the repayment threshold used in England or Wales (£25,000 from next year), the interest is RPI. For Scottish and Northern Irish ex-students the interest rate is RPI unless the bank base rate falls to more than 1% below that. In that case (as now: when the 2017-18 rates were set, the base rate was 0.25%, RPI 3.1%) interest is lower for Scots and the Northern Irish. But if the base rate and RPI become closer again, low earning English and Welsh students could be on the same interest rate as Scots and the Northern Irish. There is not a guaranteed lower rate for the latter groups.


Student support review #4: the diminishing return(s) of spin

“The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons”   Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is how I feel about claims of policy superiority between the different UK nations.

At Monday’s launch of the student support review, in her opening remarks the chair drew attention to criticism of a line run in pre-briefing, that the review proposals would offer the best support for students available in the UK. I presume the criticism in question was mine, here.  She denied its use was inappropriate and repeated the claim on behalf of the review group, saying it would be “the best student package available in the UK”. The claim does not appear in the actual report.

I was kindly given the chance to ask a question, so I asked how they felt the review’s recommended outcome compared specifically with the proposals for Wales, from which their headline suggestion, a flat-rate support entitlement, borrows.

Replying on behalf of the review, Russell Gunson of IPPR Scotland, and previously of NUS Scotland, identified three things which were better. Here is what I noted he mentioned, with some comments:

  • The inclusion of FE students

In Wales, at very low incomes full-time students (unless on EMA) are entitled to a grant of £1,500 and part-timers half of that. The review’s proposals suggest a maximum grant of £4,050 and access to a loan topping the total up to £8,100. The review has however kicked part-time support into the long grass, and over the following day it became clear EMA students were not included in its recommendations (see here): Wales also still has EMA, at the same rate (£30/week). So the Scottish proposals are much better for full-time students in FE who are not on EMA.

  • The loan repayment terms, referring to the interest rate and the threshold

The interest rate on loans in Wales is higher than the Scottish one (though it may not always be by very much, depending on a person’s earnings level and the relationship  at any given time between RPI and the Bank of England base rate: bear with me here). But the Welsh government will continue to write off £1,500 of debt at the start of repayment, which in practice will wipe out much of the effect of the higher interest rate during study, especially for those whose borrowing is kept down by access to a reasonable level of maintenance grant.  Meantime, the threshold is an odd thing to cite.  In Wales, it will be £25,000, from next year, compared to £22,000 in Scotland, from a year which the review does not specify. The Programme for Government suggests it will rise to that level by the end of this parliament. So it’s the interest which is (in most cases) more favourable under the review proposals: the repayment threshold is actually worse.

  • The treatment of those on benefits.

I have to accept this claim at face value. The interaction of benefits and student support is a very specialist topic where I don’t pretend to be able to be able to make comparisons. Let’s assume this claim would withstand further scrutiny. 

To be best in the UK, the package by definition has to be better than the one in Wales. That claim rests on the things in bold above. Not mentioned, but could have been, was the total value of combined bursary and loan support for HE students living at home, which would be £8,100 in Scotland, but will be £7,650 in Wales.

There are areas where the Welsh arrangements will be more favourable, which weren’t mentioned:

The total value of support for those living away from home, who make up the majority of HE students in both nations and who by common agreement face the greatest cost pressures: this will be £9,000 (£11,250 in London) for students from Wales, compared to the review’s £8,100.

The inclusion of part-time students, who will get support pro rata in Wales, but remain unaided for living costs under the review’s package. The review makes general statements about the desirability of funding part-timers, but remits the issue back to the SG and its recommendation’s costing is for full-time students only.

Much (much) greater use of non-repayable means-tested bursary to provide this living cost support in Wales, so that living cost loans will be much lower at low and middle incomes.

The extension to taught post-graduate students in Wales, who will get a similar package to undergraduates, although the implementation of that in full will take longer. The review did not look at taught post-graduates: Scottish ones can now borrow something towards fees and living costs, but the Welsh arrangements for this group will be much better.

The opening video presentation for the launch emphasised the problem of student hardship, i.e. students not having enough to live on. This is also a strong theme in the report. So how systems compare on total living cost support, especially for the people facing the highest costs, feels like it should weigh pretty heavily in any objective comparison, on the review’s own terms.  As might how far that support is offered at low and middle incomes on terms which are more likely to actually be taken up – that is, how much is grant. The Welsh plan is substantially better on both those counts.

The inclusion of full-time non-EMA FE students is balanced by the exclusion of all part-timers, in HE and FE, and post-graduates. I’m going to write elsewhere about specific comparative claims made in the report about the loan scheme, but in brief the interest rate difference does not self-evidently outweigh a £3k difference in the repayment threshold, particularly for low earners.   Clearly, benefit interaction is a very serious issue for those who are affected, and they will tend to be particularly financially vulnerable, but the review does not say what proportion of students are affected by this, or how much money may be involved. I think one, ideally both, figures would have to be reasonably high to justify a claim this mattered more than differences in general support, especially grant support.

What about fees?

The review made its claim specifically about its own proposals, from which fees were excluded. But if fee debt and funding is regarded as relevant then other comparisons would apply.

In Scotland debt for those who study in-country will be lower per annum, which for many people may be the be-all-and-end-all.  However, the difference with Wales will be pretty small at low incomes, and in a few cases the extra year of study in Scotland for an honours degree may more than wipe it out. Those who leave Scotland to study will have higher debt at low and middle incomes, compared to counterparts from Wales, because they will pay the same fees, but get little or no maintenance grant by comparison.

As well as applying to all Welsh students, not only those who stay in-country to study, the Welsh package concentrates non-repayable cash funding far more on those from households with the lowest incomes, protecting them more from debt relative to those from higher income families. That’s only arguably better: it depends on your thinking this matters. But that is the whole point about my complaint about these general comparisons. Perspective matters and needs to be made explicit.

“A” for effort?

The chair also seemed to be offering one further argument for the UK comparative claim, which was to do with how hard the group had

“tried to create the best in Scotland”

The argument sounded to be that in doing the best they could, the group must have come up with the best package in the UK.

If that was the implication, then there’s a huge logical leap. I don’t doubt at all that the review members feel they did the best they could within the terms they were given. When I run in the school parents’ race I try to do the best I can, within my own considerable constraints. It doesn’t mean I win.

In any case, the review itself identifies that there was a better, higher grant, package that is not their recommendation because it was beyond their remit. Moreover, the Diamond review no doubt also felt they did they best they could for Wales. So on this logic theirs must be best in the UK, too.

Best in what way? Best for whom?

It clearly bears repeating that student support systems have many different elements, some of which matter more to some people than others, and which will affect people differently depending on their circumstances. Then there are people like me who worry about system-wide effects, like how students are treated relative to one another. The chance of finding one which is best on every conceivable important measure in most, let alone all, cases is low. No UK scheme achieves that now or in the near future will manage that. Assertions of “bestness” become increasingly meaningless and value-laden, the more general they are.

Even narrowing it down to students from particular backgrounds, it is rare to find a system which is “best” on every obviously important measure.  When I compared UK systems in detail a couple of years ago, there was only one group of students for whom one system came close to being objectively “best”. For students from families earning at least £54,000 who stayed in-country to study, and were not later low earners, Scotland clearly offered the best terms. I think that will remain true under these proposals, but I haven’t re-run the sums.


There was no need to run this line.  There was no need to double-down and repeat it unprompted. It was not included in the report: it appears to have been developed in the final stages of deciding the presentational approach. Student support is not a cross-UK beauty contest or an arms-race: comparisons are enlightening and thought-provoking, but the primary focus should be on the policy choices being made within the boundaries of each home nation, and who benefits (and who does not).

The benefit of a review such as this should be that it lifts the debate above the political stramash which typifies the discussion of student funding in Scotland. It was a chance to concentrate on the mechanics free of the more questionable rhetoric. So it has been simply disappointing to see this highly rhetorical distraction device being brought out again. At least this time, unlike in 2012, it has been possible to test the basis. Readers can judge the answer offered for themselves. To me, it sounded more like an explanation hastily reached for after the line was decided, than the conclusion of a piece of careful analysis and deliberation, from which the line was drawn.

I think the review is a little diminished by its association with this claim. It was so central to the line run by the government, and echoed by NUS, in 2012 that it is hard to believe it has appeared spontaneously. In any event, its use was ill-advised. There’s nothing wrong with any review trying to get the most favourable hearing it can, for all the hard work it has done.  It may even sometimes be judged that that requires paying for professional PR advice, as is happening here (two senior partners of Charlotte Street Partners, Kevin Pringle and Andrew Wilson, were present at the launch).  But for an exercise like this, there’s no price that can be put on being perceived to be above spin.

Student support review #3: further issues – a run through/aide memoire

There are a few other issues which stand out as deserving more attention, in no particular order.

The benefits of the new flat rate entitlement to  those just above to grant cut off, where family contributions are currently high relative to income, and to those at higher incomes whose parents cannot or will not support them, as long as they are willing to borrow.

The movement of FE bursaries onto an entitlement basis – a generally good thing, although the report’s references to increased interaction with the benefit system may hint at why this has not been done before. It’s not clear if this needs legislation.

The extension of loans to FE as an issue of principle: that raises some interesting questions. The ground has been partly broken by FE fee loans in England.  The report doesn’t mention whether the review looked into any potential for lessons from that. I think this might need legislation: the report does not address that point.

The review’s claims that loans terms here are and will be superior to those in other parts of the UK: one of these is wrong, others don’t have the supporting analysis that appears to be required required to back them up (more on that to follow). Generally, from the repeated references to it at the launch, the fact of lower interest rates in Scotland than England and Wales (though not Northern Ireland) seem to loom large in the review’s worldview. At the launch, it was implied that the proposals in the report go beyond the existing SNP manifesto commitment to improve loan repayment terms: I don’t immediately see that, beyond a gentle nudge to consider following the English and Welsh rise to a £25,000 repayment threshold, but need to check again.

The review’s discussion of attitudes towards loans. It suggests a negative press for loans is more of an issue in other parts of the UK. But Scottish government ministers are extensively on record themselves talking in very negative terms about loans, where they are used for fees, without any apparent concern about how that might affect attitudes to borrowing here for living costs, and the SG has not actively promoted loans as a funding source in Scotland, despite promises to the parliament during the autumn 2012 that it would do so.  However negative the media, there’s been quite strong official promotion of loans in other parts of the UK, by contrast, for obvious reasons.

The further discussion at the launch about the basis for a more general claim of the recommended system being best in the UK: a short post on that will follow.

The suggestion student support should be calculated only to cover 25 hours a week of study for full-time students, to allow up to 10 hours of paid employment within a 35 hour week: that compares to 35 hours  assumed in Diamond. The views of university and college teachers on this would be interesting.

The lack of any discussion of the fall in numbers taking a grant in recent years, the possible reasons for that and its implications for a Scottish funding model: that’s very disappointing.

The review’s recommendations about the relationship between benefits and student finance. The report shows that for reasons that are not at all clear, Scotland is the only part of the UK which has not adopted a way of labelling/packaging support to reduce its impact on benefits. The review makes recommendations it hopes will more than catch that position up: but it appears to suggest that for quite a few years Scottish policy has failed to spot a relatively simple way to provide practical help to at least some student on benefits. That’s quite a finding, if I am reading it right.

The general evidence base and presentation of supporting figures in the report: on a first read, it feels much thinner than others on this general theme here and elsewhere in the UK over the past two decades. There’s more to say on that, and the resourcing of the review, probably.

There are various recommendation about system administration and information, which look sensible, particularly for a large improvement in on-line resources. They are probably more for others to comment on.

The review of student support #2: its consideration of grants vs loans

The report of the SG’s student support review was published yesterday: it is available here This post looks at its treatment of grant and loan, and says the last rites over bullet point 2 of recommendation 19 of the Commission on Widening Access.


It’s difficult to over-state how far this review was constrained by the remit the government set it (see page 15 in the link above).

It could not be the Diamond Review (although there are signs it aspired to be something of a Diamond for Scotland), because in Wales Diamond was given free range to look at whole of higher education student finance and its complete effect on students.  This review was specifically told  not to look at fees. So though the review describes itself as aiming to be “holistic”, it had no choice but to be holistic with a large hole.

The group stuck carefully to the prohibition on looking at fees, and it’s not clear there was any appetite to do otherwise. As the chair said at the launch yesterday:

We really support, I’m sure everyone does, the Scottish government’s focus on funding tuition fees. We commend that.

The odd effect of this remit restriction was well-illustrated earlier this year, when the Scottish government invited tenders on behalf of the review  for comparative research into systems in other countries. Bidders were specifically asked to exclude fees from the comparison, but still to draw conclusions on the relationship between student funding and participation.  (The final report is available here, by Anna Round and Russell Gunson of IPPR Scotland, the latter also being a member of the review group.)

On top of this, the government told the review not to come up with anything expensive. As the report puts it:

But the Scottish Government also made it clear in the remit that any recommendations from the Review should be made in full awareness “of the evident constraint on the public finances”.

Or as the chair, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, put it at the report’s launch (I hope I was writing fast enough to get her exact words).

in other words, could we do this and not cost the government very much more money

Grants versus loans

The review kicked a bit more against the funding restriction, but only a bit, listing a further option which would mean increasing means-tested grants, at a cost of £123m. NUS Scotland strongly pushed for that (supported by Unison). But this “50/50 bursary to loan balance” option is described only as “an aspiration of most of the board”. It’s not the review’s recommendation.

The review more generally says

how should levels of loans and bursaries be balanced? This was arguably the hardest question we considered. The Board found it helpful to view the costs landscape as a journey to be achieved over time. However, the rate of progress to fair funding and parity is for the Scottish Government to determine based on the public funding they wish to allocate in any particular year

That feels a rather jargon-heavy (“view the costs landscape”?) and non-commital position. It is certainly well short of strong arguments made for targeted grants  as a progressive intervention in the Diamond review, and previous ones in Wales: those however were free to switch resources from fee subsidies to grants, to make their recommendations affordable.

The recommendation

The review recommends a “hybrid approach” which is will keep HE grants at their current low level (especially low for mature students), and put a little more into FE bursaries, but rely on loans to give everyone, at all incomes £8,100 of total support (copying from the Diamond Review’s flat-rate model, but ignoring its arguments for the substantial use of grant to achieve this).

Surprisingly perhaps, the report only shows what its recommended option would mean for the lowest income young students in HE, and the lowest income FE students, and no others.

But given it assumes no new grant spending in HE, it seems reasonable to fill the gaps using the existing HE grant levels: see below.  I think it’s untransparent of the review not to include this table (or whatever equivalent it has used to produce its costings). It suggests wariness of making clear how much loan its package would involve for most students, if they wanted to make the £8,100 reality. But that’s the consequence of living with the existing level of HE grants.

In passing, I’m disappointed the review doesn’t comment on the lack of justification for giving mature students less grant than young students.

Young Independent (mature)
Household income Young Student Bursary Loan: new (old) Independent

Student Bursary

Loan: new (old)
0-£18,999 1875 6225


875 7225


£19,000-£23,999 1125 6975


0 8100


£24,000-£33,999 500 7600


0 8100


£34,000+ 0 8100


0 8100


This change does address the complaint from people like me that the previous system was designed round higher debt at lower incomes. Whether in practice it translates into a distribution of borrowing no longer skewed towards the lowest incomes will depend on whether higher income families withdraw from providing living cost support on any scale (or their children borrow the money on top of that). That is, a less regressive pattern of borrowing by income will depend on a significant rise in student indebtedness at high incomes, rather than a reduction in it at lower ones.

Around one-quarter of students on YSB don’t take out a loan: the review report disappointingly does not discuss the implication of that for its proposals, although it does discuss the need to encourage a more positive view of student loans, especially as an alternative to commercial debt.

I can’t repeat this table for FE students, as the review recommends an increase in grant, but only says what this would mean at the highest rate (an increase from around £3200 to £4050) and not how it might then taper. The cut off for FE grant is much higher, at £45,000. The review really ought to have shared in more detail its assumptions about FE grant and loan at different incomes. It says its planned increases in FE bursary would cost £16m (+25%) on current spending.

We know that YSB students in college are less likely to borrow than those in university (30% in college do not vs 20% in university). That raises further questions about what sort of take-up  of loans there might be among FE students in practice. The review confirmed yesterday that it had not tried to estimate this. Its costings assume 100% loan take-up.

Conclusion: an Access Commission recommendation quietly buried

It’s worth remembering that some of the origin of this review was Recommendation 19 from the Commission on Widening Access. Emphasis added.

Recommendation 19: The Commissioner for Fair Access should commission research, within three months of appointment, to assess how student finance impacts on the participation of disadvantaged learners in higher education. This research should consider in particular:

  • Whether, and to what extent, levels of student finance impact upon access, retention and choice of institution.

  • Whether, and to what extent, the balance between loan and bursary impacts upon access, retention and choice of institution.

  • International practice on student finance and the impact this has on access and retention.

As “Implementing a Blueprint for Fairness” puts it (emphasis added):

Further and Higher Education Student Support Review

This independent review, chaired by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, has a remit to thoroughly review student support and ensure that the entire system is firmly focused on meeting the needs of all students in further and higher education. The review was launched in October 2016 and is scheduled to report to Ministers by autumn 2017. The Chair met with the Commissioner for Fair Access in May to discuss the links between the Student Support Review’s work and the findings of the Commission. Work to deliver Recommendation 19 (Research on student finance) and Recommendation 20 (Better information on student finance) will be considered in the context of this review.

In terms of addressing the second point of Recommendation 19, this review just didn’t. With no substantial analysis of alternatives and their possible implications, it simply embeds the cuts in HE grants made in 2013,  doesn’t challenge the longer standing placing of mature students on a lower grant rate, and increases the use of loan substantially. But that can be traced directly to the constrained remit the review was set by ministers. The chance to look seriously at the balance of loan and grant was removed by government before it started.  Recommendation 19 will now be marked as ticked off, I suspect, but an important part won’t have been done. Point 2 has been quietly killed. There’s presumably absolutely no political appetite for stimulating any debate on how loans compare to grants as a way of funding living costs.



The review of student support #1: the etiquette of being introduced

Towards the end of Through the Looking Glass. Alice, very hungry,  arrives at the final banquet.  However, just as she is about to dig into a leg of mutton, or a plum pudding, she is introduced to it. And, as the Red Queen says “It isn’t etiquette to cut anyone you’ve been introduced to”.  “I won’t be introduced to the pudding, please,” Alice says, “or we shall get no dinner at all.” “Pudding – Alice; Alice – Pudding” the Red Queen persists.

This has long struck me as explaining the tone of much public policy debate in the small policy community that is Scotland. Everyone has been introduced, repeatedly.

It came to me again today at the launch of the report of the Scottish Government’s Review of Student Funding.   First, it was good of them to invite me. Second, everyone was of course really lovely, and the staff who had supported it gave me their time at the end to deal with a whole lot of technical questions I had, which were dealt with patiently and straightforwardly. And now I feel as though I am standing over the plum pudding, with my cutlery in mid-air.

So before digging into the report, it’s important to acknowledge that whatever criticisms may be made of the report, or the process, or particular findings, or the presentation, the people involved deserve recognition for having put a lot of time, over and above their usual duties, over the better part of a year, to try to make sense of what was a very constraining remit. Within that, they have made some recommendations which have potential to have a lasting impact for the good.  I’ve read through the minutes and you cannot fault the earnestness with which the group approached all this. We should be grateful that people are willing to take on this sort of work.

The story of this review is above all the story of its remit. Limited by that, the review has made its case over 84 pages.   As the Red Queen says, after the pudding gamely chats despite having lost a slice (Alice finally loses patience with etiquette), “it’s ridiculous to leave all the conversation to the pudding”.

The next post will attempt a critical overview of the main recommendations.

An old government spin line comes out of retirement

The Scottish government’s review of student support will be published tomorrow.  Once the full report is available, it will be possible to analyse its proposals. This post only considers the spin being put on it today.

Today’s coverage: “best in UK” klaxon

Two papers have been given advance briefing about the report: the Sunday Times and the Sunday Herald (which labels it an “exclusive”).

The headline story in both is that all students in FE and HE will receive £8,100 of living cost support, composed of an unspecified mix of loan and grant which will left to Ministers to decide.  A “source” from the review is quoted in both papers as saying

Establishing a minimum student income would be a huge step forward and taken together our recommendations amount to the best student support package that would be available in the UK.

Long time observers of the Scottish Government’s handling of student support announcements will recognise the “best in UK” claim. It was the centrepiece of the SG’s August 2012 announcement, which managed not to mention at all that its plans included a £35m (30%) pa cut in spending in student grants.  In 2012, the basis for the favourable comparison was nowhere stated, or teased out by the media at the time. It was nevertheless reported widely: the “best in UK” headline appeared widely across the press unchallenged.

It was digging into this claim out of straightforward curiosity which accidentally set me off towards a new career as a specialist in comparative cross-UK student finance. My conclusion in that earlier work was:

no one system can be claimed as best in the UK, other than subjectively and on the basis of partial comparisons.

This remains true.

So seeing this line  was like meeting an old friend.  But in a rather surprising context, because this time it is not the SG briefing, but what the SG has officially labelled its “independent review of student support” (emphasis added).

Further, an “exclusive” Sunday briefing before a Monday launch is a longstanding professional PR tactic. Its aim is to manage coverage, by slipping out some conclusions ahead of the rest, accompanied by the preferred interpretation. It means initial reactions are based on imperfect information, selected for maximum favourable impact, plus spin which may go beyond what is actually in the report.  It also means that if the full story raises more difficult questions, by the time these emerge, it is old news, editors are more likely to spike coverage and thus criticisms are slightly less likely to get publicity. It was an unexpected tactic for an impartial independent review to adopt.

A partial claim?

“Best in the UK” is a surprising claim for an independent review to fasten on not only because of its resonant and not entirely respectable recent history as a Scottish government spin line, but because it’s unavoidably a subjective claim. There are a broad range of aspects of student funding systems you might compare, including:

  • how much students get to live on at the lowest incomes
  • how tightly “lowest income” is defined
  • how much students get at all other incomes
  • how that varies according to whether you live at home or away
  • how much of that has to be borrowed
  • which categories of students are in and out of scope
  • what final debt is at different incomes
  • who ends up with the most debt
  • the terms of your loan scheme
  • etc

There is no scheme which is “best” at all this as of today. The review proposals as revealed so far will not alter that fact.

Most obviously, from next year (the soonest any new Scottish proposals could come in), Welsh students living away from home will be able to claim £9,000 a year  (£11,250 in London), £900 more a year than the Scottish review proposes: more here.  Moreover, all but £900, ie. £8,100 [NB correction from initial post, which stated the whole amount would be grant] of Welsh living cost support will be provided entirely as non-repayable grant at the lowest incomes, and grant will be worth multiple thousands much further up the income scale, with everyone getting at least £1,000.  The Scottish review, we are, told, will leave the Scottish government to choose the grant/loan split.  The arrangements in Wales will also cover part-time students pro rata: minutes of review meetings suggest it has only looked at full-timers. In Wales,  borrowing is and will remain skewed away from those from the lowest incomes: in Scotland the way is being left open for the opposite to continue.  I recently heard the relevant Minister from Wales claiming Wales would have (wait for it) the best system in the UK, even after allowing that students will have to borrow up to £9,000 for fees alongside.

The point is, that claiming to be “best in the UK” means making judgements about what – and who – matters most.  If an independent review repeats this claim in its report, it needs to spell out precisely the basis for that claim, and justify why it is ignoring or counting as irrelevant certain areas where it does less well.  Otherwise it will sound like no more than the re-run of an old political spin line, which does not belong in this sort of document. And if someone has spun a line ahead of publication which members did not agree to include in the report, that would raise a different question, about who is in control of the review.

Who’s briefing?

It’s in the nature of this sort of story that the source is left vague. The Sunday Herald call him or her “a review group source”. the Sunday Times uses “a source from the review”.

We do know however that the review has engaged Charlotte Street Partners to do at least some of its media work.  Invitations to tomorrow’s launch sent to journalists this week came from CSP.  CSP is well-known in Scottish lobbying circles: it is one of the most high profile “strategic communications” firms north of the border .  Specifically the invitations (or at least the one I’ve seen) are from Kevin Pringle.  Pringle’s biography on CSP’s site says:

Kevin Pringle joined us as a Partner in 2015. He is one of our most experienced strategy and communications advisers and has a greater knowledge of Scottish politics than anybody we have ever met. He is widely regarded as one of the most respected strategic communications experts of his generation, having worked in frontline politics for many years, helping steer the SNP successfully from a small opposition party to one of the greatest political success stories of modern times.

Between 2004 and 2006, Kevin earned some valuable private sector experience with Centrica’s Scottish Gas business, before rejoining the SNP’s political machine. Following the 2007 Scottish elections, he was appointed senior special adviser to the first SNP First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond. Kevin went on to become director of strategic communications for the SNP, playing a central role in the cross-party Yes campaign. He is currently a columnist for The Sunday Times in Scotland.

From May 2011 until 31 August 2012 Pringle was the SG special adviser in charge of “strategic communications across all portfolios”, so the 2012 “best in UK” line was first developed, as it happens, on his watch in government.

Engaging Pringle to manage its media relations is without doubt therefore an interesting move by the review. Typically these bodies are supported in their activity by officials seconded from government.  This one has had a more complex support structure – a mixture of civil servants and staff from Virgin Money (a story for a different day), but invitations to the launch to people like me came from a civil service address.  Buying in outside top-end PR help (and as Pringle’s biography shows, you’d struggle go more top end in Scotland than him) specifically to deal with the media is, or used to be, less common for independent advisory bodies.  I don’t think it happened with the recent Commission for Widening Access or with the earlier Cubie Review, for example.

Looking past the spin

The real interest in this review will come with access to its full report tomorrow. From the early briefing, the review will not come out arguing unequivocally for extra investment in grant, but offer government a range of choices, which will include using loan to provide all or most extra support.  There’ll be plenty to discuss, therefore.  Playing games of airy and unexplained one upmanship with other UK nations will, however, be the least interesting way this debate could go, or be covered by the media.  Those seriously interested in the substance of policy-making here in Scotland might instead pay particular, careful attention to how decisions that may be made here would affect Scottish students from lower incomes, and what questions this raises for the continued commitment to sinking £1 billion annually in 100% universal cash subsidies for fees (clue: some loan could be deployed here instead, and cash extracted and used for grants).

In August 2012, Mr Pringle and/or his colleagues successfully obscured substantial grant cuts and debt increases for tens of thousands of students from lower income homes by offering a comfort blanket story of national superiority.  Let’s make the PR people work a bit harder for their money this time.


Footnote:  But … free tuition?

Some people will always feel that any system which is based on free tuition is automatically better than any other.

But on that argument, the review could have recommended the complete annihilation of all living cost support in Scotland and it would still be proposing the “best” system. Clearly (I hope) no-one would believe that.

So we need to get past playing the absence of tuition fee debt as a trump card. It’s something to include in the equation – but how that equation works out, not least across different incomes, then needs working through.

It’s also worth noting that the full comment was “taken together our recommendations amount to the best student support package that would be available in the UK” (emphasis added).  It’s a small point, perhaps, but fee support is specifically outside the review remit. It was not allowed to make recommendations about fees. Thus the source’s own words invite us to compare living cost support packages quite specifically.  So it’s a particularly bold claim, in any world where £9,000 is higher than £8,100.

A case study in the brutalism of small decisions: the changing threshold for maximum grant in Scotland

Over the past year, the Scottsh government has been very keen to celebrate its decision to increase the income up to which it provides maximum grant. It was doing so again yesterday:

The Scottish Government said almost 3,000 additional students qualified for a non-repayable bursary or saw their funding increase as a result of the income threshold being raised from £17,000 to £19,000 last year.

I’ve been critical of this line, because it obscures that the celebrated increase simply reverses most of cut made by the same people in 2013. Up to 2012-13, maximum grant was available at household incomes below £19,300. In 2013-14 that was cut to £17,000. Even leaving aside that £19,300 in 2012-13 would now be somewhere above £20,000, the most recent increase isn’t therefore much to boast about. It’s like standing hard on someone’s foot and then expecting them to be grateful when after a while you stand on it a bit less hard.

The reason for highlighting this is not just as a failure of honesty in government communications (though that is partof it), but because the change in 2013 had such a serious negative impact on individuals. As the line quoted above shows, for the first time we can now say with some certainty how many.

The way the figures have been presented (nothing dubious, just how it’s been done)  have made it impossible to identify until now how many people fell into the £17,000-£19,300 band. This year, however, we have figures on the numbers with incomes up to £19,000 and we can compare that with earlier years, when the cut-off was lower.

The chart here shows how numbers in the lower and higher bands have changed: the higher band was £17,000 to £23,999 for the first three years and £19,000 to £23,999 last year.

Screenshot 2017-11-01 at 08.30.56

There were a pretty consistent 9,000 in this band between 2013-14 and 2015-16. The lower band fluctuates more, which is probably because it contains a large majority of low-income mature students, whose numbers have tended to be quite unstable.

On the basis of these numbers, the SG’s 3,000 looks like a fair estimate of the number caught by the threshold cut in 2013-14 (or a bit of an under-estimate, bearing in mind the new limit is still below the old one). The changes, down and up, have been applied to everyone, new and continuing. The original move probably saved the Scottish government around £4m a year in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and slightly less in 2015-16, when £125 was added to the grant reducing the saving by around 10%.

Here’s why the impact of the 2013 change on the group can properly be described as brutal.

Other data suggest it is likely most of those affected were younger students, eligible for YSB.  In 2012-13, every young student with a household income up to £19,300 was entitled to a grant of £2,640.  If they chose, they could top that up with loan of £3,740 to a total sum of £6,380   (living away from home; less loan was available to those living at home).

In 2013-14, their grant was cut to £1,000 and they were offered a loan of £5,750 (whether living at home or away), to bring total support to £6,750.  Thus they lost £1,640 of non-repayable cash funding every year.  Even if they were willing to take on the whole higher loan, and borrow £2,000 more a year, that only improved their overall support by £400.

Around a quarter of YSB takers don’t borrow: those in this group simply lost 62% of their income. Remember, this included students already in the system, who’d entered expecting this grant.

I think a real injustice was done to the people in this group, who experienced a clear, significant detriment. In regarding this as an acceptable penalty to apply to this small, vulnerable group, government did an archetypally bad bit of policy-making. In throwing its whole weight uncritically behind the 2013 changes (at the time: they no longer do) and not even insisting on a safety net for those already studying, NUS Scotland performed poorly.

Thus, every time ministers highlight the increase in the threshold in 2016-17, they are doing so on the back of these dramatic losses for two or three thousand young people from low-income homes every year from 2013-14 to 2015-16.  I’d not be so proud of that.

Latest Scottish student support statistics: claimants for YSB no longer falling but remain historically low

Some brief analysis of the annual Scottish student support statistics are published today: link here.

Last year, it was the accelerating fall in the numbers getting a means-tested grant which stood out: see here:

This year numbers are higher, but the absolute number on Young Student Bursary  and, even more, the number on YSB as a proportion of young students remains historically low and needs an explanation.

Means-tested grant claimants

Something really odd has happened to the number of younger students claiming a means-tested grant.

The figure below shows the trend in the number of students claiming YSB (plus the separate Young Student Outside Scotland Bursary from 2004-05 to 2010): YSB is available to students under 25.  The figure will understate the number of young students getting a means-tested grant prior to 2013-14: various small non-age specific means-tested grants existed prior to that, which were rolled into YSB (and Independent Student Bursary, for older students) at that point.

YSB change

Note: Rise in 2005-06 likely to be due to increased rates and thresholds that year.

While the numbers below the age of 25 have risen by 21% since 2004-05, the number of young students getting a means-tested grant in the last two years has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade.

The figure below shows YSB (and YSOSB) recipients as a percentage of all under 25. Some people on YSB may have been over 25, so the true proportion of the relevant age group getting a grant will have been lower in every year – but the trend is startling.

YSB as %


There may be some sort of technical explanation for the fall in the last two years (have some been moved onto the much lower Independent Student Bursary?), but even then the longer-term trend is a concern.  It clearly deserves explaining. If the student support review due to publish soon has nothing to say about this, it will be very disappointing.

The news on independent students is better. These have had a national means-tested grant since 2010. After a boost to numbers in 2013-14 (likely to be due to many students moving on to ISB who were previously on a separate grant for professions allied to medicine), the number here had been falling, but is now up. The number of older students over the period has grown, too, but only by 3.8%.  The potential for year-on-year volatility looks like the issue here.


Spending on means-tested grants

In 2015-16 £125 was added to YSB for most recipients, and in 2016-17 the income threshold for the maximum grant was put back almost to where it was in cash terms in 2012-13.

The combined effect of these is now visible: between 2014-15 (before either change) and 2016-17, total YSB spending rose by £3.5m (9%), and ISB by £2.7m (23%, reflecting not least the rise in numbers this year) .

Total spending on means-tested grants remained £31m/35% lower than in 2012-13, even so, and these comparisons are in cash terms and take no account of inflation.

The average YSB payment rose from to £1235 to £1391 over the same two-year period.  For ISB, the figures are £710 to £827.

Total borrowing

Total borrowing has exceeded £0.5 bn for the first time (we already knew this from an earlier data release by the Student Loans Company).


Average borrowing remains almost unchanged: it is £5,300 compared to £5,290 the year before.  The rise in the total is due to more students borrowing.

Debt distribution

Borrowing by income is hardly changed, so that borrowing continues to be skewed towards those at low incomes, as  the design of the system would predict. Nothing new here: Scotland’s particular use of student loans remains indefensibly regressive.


These figures contain no major new surprises, other perhaps than the large increase in ISB claimants. But what’s happening to the number of younger students receiving a means-tested grant really does demand attention.







Has the average grant payment fallen by £400 over the past decade?

Last week, the Scottish Labour Party highlighted recent cuts to grants with this tweet.

Labour £400

This post checks the £400 quoted and concludes that the real terms fall has been nearly double that (and as much as £899, if looking specifically at Young Student Bursary).  As well examining Labour’s claim, the figures here also provide some context for the current review of student funding, which is due to report towards the end of this year.


The last year before the SNP came into government was 2006-07. Data on student funding over the period is available here: 2015-16 is the latest year for which average payments can be calculated.  The relevant data and my calculations from it are here: Grants 2006-2015.

Total non-repayable funding (grants and bursaries)

The £400 looks to be a calculation of the cash value of the change in the average value of all forms of non-repayable SAAS support taken together: this fell from £1,757 to £1,328 (-£429).  However, these figures take no account of inflation. Given this comparison covers a decade, it would be more conventional to put figures into a common price base – to make them “real-terms”. At 2015-16 prices, the 2006-07 average would be worth £2,051, making the real terms fall over the decade larger (£-723).

total grantsYoung Student Bursary

Total awards is a useful figure, but looking at it masks larger falls in the grant targeted specifically on young low income students.  For Young Student Bursary, the cash fall was from £1,914 to £1,336 (-£579).  The real terms fall is larger. At 2015-16 prices, the average YBS payment was £2,235, so that the real terms fall in the average grant payment to a young student from a low income family was -£899.

YSB average

As the charts show, the drop is almost all accounted for by the unpublicised cut made to YSB rates in 2013.  The slight rise in 2015-16 reflects the addition of £125 to most but not all YSB entitlements.

Total numbers receiving non-repayable support and total spending

For the bigger picture, it’s also worth looking at changes in the total value of payments and number of recipients. The charts below show the real-terms value and number of claimants of (a) total non-repayable awards and (b) YSB alone.  This shows that as well as the average falling, so did total spending, as did the number of students receiving non-repayable grants, and YSB alone. Yet total student numbers have risen over the period, and in 2013 a number of smaller grants covering just over 2,500 students were rolled into YSB.

The spike in the total in 2010 is due to mature students being brought back into a national grant scheme (albeit at lower rate than YSB): the fall in 2011 is due largely to the abolition of travel grants the year after.


Total spendingTital claimants










Response to the consultation on student support

Here’s my final response to the consultation on student funding, run by the SG’s Student Support Review.

The  questions are still quite open ended, although the review is now in its final few weeks: it is due to report in the autumn. Where questions are asked about a specific proposal, a “minimum income guarantee”, what is meant by that is not defined. The SG uses this to mean “the maximum amount of support, available only to those at the lowest incomes”, but the questions make it sound like what’s envisaged is something more like the Welsh plan for a uniform support entitlement, provided in a different mix of grant and loan, depending on income.

It’s not clear whether the review is prepared to argue for increased cash investment in support for low -income students, or is asking its questions in the context of taking a zero-sum approach to non-repayable funding. That matters a great deal.  The difference between FE and HE support, in value and legal entitlement, is a critical issue for the review. But it’s had to see how that gets fixed with no new cash.

The concern about this review must be that, having been told that fees are outside its remit, if it is not looking at increased cash investment, it will be tempted to suggest that the SG makes much more use of student loans to plug holes in its living cost support, particularly for those from low incomes and those studying on FE-level courses (there’s  some overlap there).  In stacking up debt even more disproportionately among those from the lowest incomes, that would be a regressive move.

In theory, however, the review offers the chance to make some improvements, including to reverse some of the worse features of the 2013 changes: not just lower grants but also a lower income threshold for maximum support (only partially corrected last year), the introduction of very sharp stepped reductions in support at particular incomes, and the removal of any extra support for study in London.  It is also a chance to sort some longer-standing issues, such as the lower grant offered to independent (mature) students and the relatively poor levels of support available at incomes between £34,000 and around £45,000. There are new things to look at, such as whether students on 1+4, 2+3 or 2+4 models should have a year (or two) of their debt written off, so that the SG is putting its money where its mouth is, in regard to its increased emphasis on college entry to HE as a route to university.

It’s also a chance to remind everyone of the current government’s commitment in its manifesto to increasing the loan repayment threshold to £22,000 (it is currently around £17,500; it is £21,000 in England and in Wales) and reducing the write-off period from 35 years to the 30 years used in the rest of the UK.  Although this unqualified manifesto commitment was remitted to the review (not a common move for a single party government so soon after an election), surprisingly perhaps the consultation does not include questions asking specifically about it.  It would be the most effective way to help lower-earning graduates, and if the review does not hold the SG to making these changes, it will be very disappointing.

The consultation ran from the end of June to the end of August. That’s less than the SG’s standard 12 weeks, and coincided with the summer break.  If the review nevertheless gets a decent number of responses, it will be evidence that a consultation like this has been long overdue. If it doesn’t, then I suspect the timing will turn out to have been a large issue.

Sections in italics below are my responses.  I’ve only answered the ones where I felt I had something to say.


1 – Greater alignment of financial support for students across colleges and universities with increased fairness in what all students can access;

Rationale: to create parity for all students whatever the level of study

1.1 Should there be parity in funding levels available to all students, based more on need rather than the level of study?

This is a hard principle not to support. But if it would simply mean spreading the existing cash resources available for those in the greatest need even more thinly, it would be very problematic.  Taking already limited support from one low-income group to help another cannot be the right answer.

There is already some evidence (previously shared with the review team) that take-up of grant, particularly the £500 level of YSB, has fallen as grant has reduced in value: it is plausible that some students do not regard it as large enough to justify asking their families to go through means-testing. Cutting existing HE grants further therefore risks not only higher debt or reduced grant support at low incomes, but low income students falling out of means-tested support entirely.

What is meant by “need” also matters here. Underlying expectations of family support (cash and kind) at different ages and stages are especially important. Does a 17 year old studying at school have the same need for state help as a 19 year old from the same household who is entering post-school education?   There is a strong argument that post-school level young people need to be supported in having more choice over where they study and live, and that our expectations of direct family support should reduce at that stage.  The review could usefully take a view on this.

1.2 How could parity be achieved and how can we maximise the income available to students?

It is very important that grant and loan are not treated as inter-changeable forms of living cost support. Otherwise, it is very likely that those most dependent on state help with living costs will end up either with the most debt (particularly if they do not move directly from school to  university) or not taking out their full notional entitlement.

My MSc research (already discussed with the review team) showed that a significant minority of those entitled to YSB do not take out the loan required to top it up to obtain their maximum entitlement to support.  Those in college-level HE are particularly likely to be non-borrowers, especially in first year.  Any proposals here should take into account the evidence we already have of the lower propensity to borrow of those on sub-degree courses in college.  Grant-only HE students receive less support than those who receive an FE bursary.

It is not clear whether the review is prepared to argue for higher investment in non-repayable forms of targeted student support for those from lower incomes. This is however the only way to improve living cost support for those at low incomes which can be relied on to be largely taken up by that group, and which will clearly avoid them facing a later penalty for their lower-income starting point, in terms of having to repay a larger debt.

1.3 How can parity in funding be achieved without having a negative impact on benefits?

I cannot comment on the interaction with benefits, although I would hope the devolution of some benefit powers to the Scottish Parliament would give Ministers more flexibility to deal with the interaction with student support, for example by filling gaps where benefits are withdrawn. I am aware that the interaction with Carers’ Allowance can be particularly difficult for some students.

1.4 What is the most effective way to determine which students are most in need of bursary support?

The Rees Reviews in Wales noted that there was scope to refine the means-test and that some systems include wealth/assets in the assessment. 

The system could do more than it currently does to take into account the number of dependents there are in a household and the impact of that on family liquidity. Students from middle and higher income households which are supporting multiple children in post-school education could be given access to an additional loan entitlement, as a de facto way of enabling parents in this situation to spread their contributions to their children over a longer period.

The move in 2013 from tapers to large losses in entitlements at three particular incomes (especially £34,000) should be reviewed: it results in disproportionate loss of support for minor changes in income.

The age discrimination in HE grants should be removed, so that students no longer receive a lower grant (and higher loan) because they are classed as “independent”. The original justification for the different treatment of young and independent students was that independent students had access to a separate Mature Student Bursary Fund and were not liable for the graduate endowment. Neither of these is still true. Mature students are disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds, and have historically received additional support in recognition of their great financial liabilities: yet in Scotland at present are expected to borrow more.

2 – A simplification and clarification of the systems used to provide financial support to students in Scotland today;

Rationale: to remove some of the unnecessary complexities and enhance the student experience

2.1 What are the key features of the current system that may deter or make it more difficult for students to access, or stay in college or university?

The heavy reliance on loans for living cost support at lower-incomes risks deterring some students from taking out their full support, increasing the risk of excessive term-time employment and/or dropping out.

The sharp drop in total support available as soon as income reaches £34,000 and relatively low total support to those from households with incomes between this and around £45,000-£50,000 carries the same risk.  The total support for those in this income range is unusually low, and therefore the expectation of family contributions unusually high, within the UK. Scotland is also exceptional in the UK in withdrawing all grant support at £34,000. There is a strong case for using grant rather than loan to improve the support for this group.

2.2 Do any of the current rules and/or practices in place make it harder to access or maintain study?

2.3 How could the way in which financial support is delivered to students at college or university be improved?

3 – Better communication of the funding available, including a clear explanation of the repayment terms of student loans;

Rationale: to assist students and prospective students to understand what financial support is available and when and how they access it

3.1 What type of information on funding would be helpful to students – both prospective and continuing?

More information should be available in an easily absorbed form similar to that developed by Sarah Minty of the University of Edinburgh (here).

The SAAS website should be substantially improved, to be more intuitive and more easily navigable between sections.   An online calculator, as available for other parts of the UK, should be developed.

3.2 How and where should that information be made available? Would a particular format be more helpful?

Online, paper-based and face to face information all have a role.

3.3 When should potential students first be given information on financial packages of student support?

Young peoples’ concerns about funding as a barrier to future study should be explored early, possibly at the point when N5 subjects choices are being made, to make sure that serious misconceptions aren’t limiting choices. But detail on funding may be better left till later, not least as it can change. Decisions here should be guided by research, or further research should be commissioned, if it does not exist.

3.4 What role should colleges / universities/ schools play in providing information on student support?

They should all have staff able to provide reliable advice on this.

3.5 What more could be done to support parents/guardians to better understand the student support funding available?

This group should be specifically targeted with information, as there is emerging evidence that they are the single largest influence on young people’s understanding of their financial choices.

It is not clear why parental contribution expectations ceased to be published several years ago. Even if there are (legal?) reasons for this decision, some way has to be found to tell parents about their expected contribution, for as long as support decreases as income rises, and to make it clear that this is a very long-standing part of student support in Scotland at middle and high incomes.

3.6 What could be done to help students understand more about student loans, including how and when they are repaid?

Scottish Ministers’ negative rhetoric about student debt, used to make comparisons with other parts of the UK, risks feeding Scottish students’ reluctance to make use of student loans. The Scottish Government needs to consider whether it is sustainable to rely so heavily on student loans for living costs while being so generally critical of student debt elsewhere. The common implication that £27,000 of debt is unreasonable sits uneasily with that being around the amount a low-income student is expected to accumulate in Scotland over 4 years.

The leaflet produced by Sarah Minty, cited above, provides a very good summary of the loan system for students, which could be the basis of information provided in other media.

4 – Further consideration of the levels of funding required for all students and the funding mix.

Rationale: to provide more funding, particularly for students from the most deprived backgrounds, and funding choices for students

4.1 Should a ‘minimum income’ guarantee be introduced across all students?

Does this mean following the Diamond Review model of giving all students access to the same value of support, using a mixture of grant and loan? If so, two considerations are:

first, the more this is provided by loan at low incomes, the more likely it is that a substantial of minority of students will either not benefit in practice or will be relatively disadvantaged long-term by having larger debts (see above);

second, if loans to those at high incomes are made available at the current  highly-subsidised interest rate, it is more likely that this cash will be used not for immediate support needs, but to give these students additional long-term advantages, for example by  being used as low-cost funding towards buying property, funding unpaid or low-paid internships, or postgraduate study. The Rees Review found evidence of such practices in Wales when interest rates there were pegged to inflation, as here.  There is a strong argument that any loan support made available to those at higher incomes for living costs should be provided at a less subsidised interest rate, as a disincentive students from higher incomes using student loans to increase their relative  advantage.

4.2 What should the ‘minimum income’ guarantee be, and why? Should it be linked to the Living Wage?

4.3 Under what circumstances should a ‘minimum income’ apply?

A “minimum income” would imply that it is a minimum for everyone.  However, that label is currently used in Scotland to mean the value of the maximum support available to those at the lowest incomes, which may be confusing for students. 

If this question is intended to explore the income level up to which the maximum value of support should apply, in line with the meaning of the current Scottish MIG, then the current cut off is relatively low, particularly given that support then falls by £750 in a single step. It is lower in cash terms than applied in Scotland in 2012, and therefore now even lower in real terms. It is substantially lower than in England. It is closer to the Welsh and NI level but these systems do not then withdraw support so sharply.  There is a strong case for increasing the income threshold for maximum support, especially if a stepped system continues.

4.4 What is the appropriate balance of bursary / loans within a ‘minimum income’?

Bursary should provide the bulk of support for those at lower incomes.  It should at least be high enough to mean that they are not expected to rely more heavily on loans than those at higher income, as is currently the case.

4.5 Rather than only Higher Education students, should all students have the option to access student loans, regardless of their level of study at college or university (in addition to existing bursary entitlement)?

The rationale for the introduction of student loans in 1990 was that graduates are likely to have higher earnings from their participation in HE. There is already evidence that this is far less likely to be true for those on HN-level courses. It is very questionable whether this argument can be applied to FE students.  Unless the repayment threshold is set much higher, these students would face a significant risk of seeing a net financial loss from taking part in FE, if they take out student loans which they then have to repay.

At a more practical level, as already argued, it is very likely that many FE students would not take out a loan, so that the government might have addressed their living cost support needs on paper, but not in practice.

Loan support for FE is also likely to lead to a much greater accumulation of debt by low income students who later progress into HE, unless such students can have earlier years written off if they progress.

4.6 Are there ways that the terms and conditions attached to student loans ( e.g. interest rate or repayment threshold) could be reviewed to support consideration of extension to all students?

The present government undertook in its manifesto to substantially increase  the loan repayment threshold and bring the write-off period into line with the rest of the UK. As Barr et al have shown, these two changes would do the most to protect low earners and thus make the loan scheme more progressive. The review should strongly recommend that these commitments are honoured for all students.

5 – Any other comments, ideas and innovations

5.1 Please use this space to provide any other comments which you believe are relevant to the review. In addition, your ideas and innovative suggestions are welcomed to help inform our final report on how the student support system can be fit for the future.

The decision to remove the additional living cost allowance for those studying in London should be reversed. Scotland is the only UK jurisdiction not to provide such an allowance.  Only small numbers are affected: the cost would be small and would come from the loan not the cash budget, if models elsewhere are followed. 


Ways to limit the accumulation of additional debt by those at lower incomes in 2+3, 1+4 and 2+4 models of study should be explored, including debt write-offs for repeat years.  Although this might reduce the incentive for students to avoid repeat years, (a) these  students would still face a penalty of later labour market entry and (b) it would encourage these students to make post-college choices based on their best educational outcome, not on limiting debt. It would also increase the incentive for government to reduce the scale of repeat years.





Draft response to the Scottish Government’s student support review