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Student funding: background to analysis

June 5, 2013

I did not set out to write 40 pages on student grants in Scotland, with graphs and footnotes.

Sometime in autumn 2012, I saw a reference to student support in Scotland which made me curious. It wasn’t any of the few stories that ran in the press around October about grant reductions.  I missed those, despite taking a reasonable interest in news about Scottish politics.  Whatever it was – and I now can’t remember, it didn’t seem that important at the time – prompted me to look up the government press notice from August announcing changes to student support – just for old times’ sake, because student support policy had once played a large part in my working life.

That announced some significant changes  (though not to grants). In a spare moment I cross-checked the press release against the SAAS website, to see what more information there was there.  I was struck by the grant rates for 2013-14, which were much lower than I would have expected, given the figures a decade before.  But as the press release said nothing about these changing, I assumed these lower rates had been around for a while and I had missed them coming in.  However, when I looked at the 2012-13 figures, to compare how other aspects of the system were changing, the grant amounts turned out to be more or less what I would have expected in the first place.  The fall in grant was significant and was happening in the current year, even though it wasn’t mentioned in the press release, and I couldn’t remember seeing any particular coverage in the media.  I stuck some figures in a spreadsheet.  That confirmed that there were going to be large reductions for some students which were inevitably going to push up their debt.

Remembering how much political and media attention had been generated by the comparable (or indeed often smaller)  amount of additional  debt created by the graduate endowment – because as a civil servant I had been involved in dealing with that – I was curious that these changes seemed to have been absorbed into the Scottish political system far more easily and quietly by contrast.  So I looked up what the NUS was saying.  They highlighted increases in spending power for students, so out of curiosity I ran some calculations to see how these interacted with the grant reductions and the effect on overall debt.   Both the government and the NUS had emphasised the favourable comparison with the rest of the UK. So out of further curiosity I ran some figures for England.  Almost as an after-thought – I’m ashamed to say – I ran the figures for Wales.  As the paper records, that produced some particularly surprising results.  So I ran the figures for Northern Ireland as well.  As I went along, I looked for other documents and sources which I thought might help explain what was happening and provide more context for it.  When I looked at what had been said in the Scottish Parliament when the new arrangements had been looked at as part of the annual budget process, a research briefing for MSPs brought out that there were marked shifts going on within the  higher education budget, which were an important part of the picture. In other words, just because I was interested, I started to look and just kept looking.  No-one asked me to do this and no-one paid me to.

It became clear there was an interesting story here that wasn’t being told, not just about the effect of the grant reductions but also about how these had so far at least been relatively invisible in broader public debate.  I started writing something without any particular idea about what I would do with it, although as it developed it became clear that the analysis would be relevant to the debate about universal vs means-tested benefits  and that the findings were often at odds with some of the general debate about student support in Scotland.

I tested an earlier draft on a few friends who aren’t involved with politics or public life.  I’m grateful to them for their comments, which were all helpful.  They confirmed my feeling that this was worth sharing more widely. So I sought advice from someone who I thought might be able to identify a possible publisher. At some point this document or something extracted from it may get published more formally.  But time is moving on and the application process for the new student support arrangements is already underway.  So meantime, it is posted here, with a linked article in The Scotsman.

Everything I did was from sources openly available on the web and I have tried to ensure that references to those are all provided.  The only exceptional thing I needed to do to obtain access to any of the information was to enter a Welsh and a Northern Irish postcode  into the relevant student finance on-line calculators.  I have posted with the analysis the underpinning data on grants and loans. The Scottish figures for 2012-13 are no longer available online, but all the others still are. These calculations could have been done by anyone else with access to an internet connection, a bit of confidence in dealing with the numbers and the ability to spend the time.  I have tried throughout to ensure fair comparisons by erring on the side of caution: for example, assuming “rest of UK” fees are always at the maximum of £9000 and adjusting figures upwards to reflect the higher initial interest rate on student loans in England and Wales.

The figures are offered in good faith and have been checked and re-checked to the best of my abilities.  Similarly,  I have taken as much care as I can to represent other information in the paper accurately, using direct quotes from documents and individuals as much as possible.  If anyone has difficulty reproducing the calculations or finds factual errors, I hope they will tell me.

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