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Students grants – media coverage July to September

September 25, 2013

The summer saw a steady flow of references to tuition fees in the media. But while Alan Morrison in The Herald recalled once marching to defend student grants, there was generally little interest in these and only one reference to fact that they were about to fall sharply.

This was in The Herald’s personal finance pages, which  noted   “a significant re-weighting away from bursaries towards loans, with a typical £5500 package including £1500 of bursary last year, but in the year ahead only £500, with the loan component jumping from £4000 to £5000.”

Writing in The Ellon Times, The First Minister name-checked bursaries, noting: “Whilst Westminster is punishing students south of the border for their aspirations by trebling tuition fees, the SNP Government has abolished fees for Scots and with further assistance from student loans and bursaries, represents the best package of support available in the UK.” The Scottish Government’s pilot extension of its domestic funding package, including the standard bursary rates, to students traveling to study in Europe, initially announced and reported in January,  was reported again, also accompanied by the usual description of the Scottish package as the best in the UK.

Student debt more generally received some attention. The Herald reported the Lloyds TSB survey, exposing concern about debt levels.  These are UK-wide figures with no separate Scottish data released.  The survey showed that having too little  money to live on is an acute concern for 18% of students surveyed, with a further 48% “just managing”.  However, perhaps the most interesting finding, in the context of the coming changes in Scotland, is that in this sample 44% of students were worried about the scale of debt they had. The average debt being predicted in the sample was £16,909, below the level Scottish students from low-income homes are now expected to take on for a standard honours degree.

Reporting on a separate survey, the Herald noted that “Overall, however, student debt for Scottish students is much lower than for those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland because they don’t pay tuition fees” – a claim which, by not distinguishing between the different systems in different parts of the UK, does not bring out that – particularly once the 3 year/4 year effect is factored in – those from lower income backgrounds in Wales will often have lower overall graduate debt than their Scottish peers, and that more generally Welsh graduate debt levels (and NI ones, for those who study at home) are well below those in England and at worst comparable with those for mature students in Scotland.

Students at Edinburgh College reported problems receiving their student loans on time. There was some coverage of the cost to students of calling the SLC for queries regarding loans. Concern that some students have not yet applied for support was recently reported in The Herald.

However, even in the absence of any substantial developments over the summer, tuition fees  retained their news power.

The media reported how, presenting its legislative programme, the Scottish Government used free tuition as an example of how better decisions have been taken in Scotland.  Joan McAlpine MSP  writing in The Record noted:  “At a conference I attended this weekend, one woman described herself as a sandwicher. Life had its challenges but she was grateful for two things. She didn’t have to worry about paying university or college tuition fees for her kids.”, going on to mention tuition fees twice more in a short article. Reporting of UCAS data also provided the government (and the NUS) with  further opportunities to refer to free tuition policy.

Meantime,  David Raffe in The Herald unpicked the differences in fee regimes in different parts of the UK, explaining the different choices made in Wales and Northern Ireland about fees, though not grants.  Similarly, articles about student funding in the UK press over the summer  understandably always mentioned free tuition, but tended to be silent on the different grant levels.  This is a  good example – grant rates for every part of the UK but Scotland are provided. The different fee regimes were sometimes discussed from the perspective of English students.  The wider political ramifications of decisions about tuition fees and the West Lothian question got some attention.

Some attention was paid to what would happen to tuition fees if Scotland votes for independence. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reportedly estimated that “Scotland would also have to find an extra £100 million per year after independence to pay the tuition fees of university students from the remainder of the UK” (this sort of assumption has been contested by Ministers in the past, to note).

But it was perhaps at least as interesting to learn from this report that “spending on education and training was broadly the same per person as in the UK as a whole, despite a notably more generous policy on higher education tuition fees.”  That merits more unpicking, but provides an interesting piece of context for   Alan Cochrane’s criticism of “the SNP’s rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul system of cutting back on college funding to help them pay for their “til the rocks melt with the sun” free university tuition fee policy”, when discussing Sir Ian Wood’s call for a greater focus on vocational education.

Absent from all the reporting was any sign that existing students were being publicly critical of reductions in their grant.  That may be a sign that in the short term students are generally not very concerned about switching grant to  loan and more interested in the general increase to the value of the total package.  Or it may be indicative of other things – from the absence of an organised focus for any discontent through the student union movement, to it still being too soon in the year for the effect of change to have fully registered.  It will be interesting to see if any more clues to student attitudes emerge as the new academic year starts in earnest.

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