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Student support in Scotland 2014-15

October 30, 2013

The undergraduate student support figures for Scotland for the next academic year, 2014-15,  are now available. The expectation that students from the lowest income backgrounds will carry a higher share of Scotland’s student loans than those from better-off ones continues.

They were announced in three stages.

1.    The Cabinet Secretary gave a speech on 20 October highlighting the overall increase in the total value of support for full-time undergraduates, from £7250 to £7500 (a cash increase of 3.4% and therefore a real terms increase of around 1.5%).  Footage of the speech is no longer available on-line.  However the section on student support  was delivered pretty much as written, with minor changes from the printed text (for example, a specific criticism that what the Labour Party  “really thinks is that the costs of education should be borne by students” was omitted and reference to the NUS describing the Scottish arrangements as the best package of student support in the UK was made only once, not twice).  This increase was reported in The Herald and by the BBC  – with the further announcement of an extension of living cost loans to postgraduates being the headline in each case.  (NB Although the BBC report refers to a general  rise in bursaries, this is a reference to FE bursaries, not those in HE).

2.   On the same day the Scottish Government issued a press release which set out that the increase of £250 would be delivered through the use of student loanThe Scotsman seems to be the only major news outlet which picked up this aspect in its reporting.  Although the government news release dealt with FE bursaries and included a reference to “Today’s announcement to increase bursaries and loans”,  no information was provided on HE grants at this stage, so it was not clear what the plans were for these.

3.    On 29 October, figures for higher education grants were included in the notes to editors of this news release accompanying the release of the SAAS spending figures up to 2012-13.  The grant figures for next year are the same in cash terms as for this year: no inflation increase has been applied.  As this analysis from last month shows, this was always a likely outcome of the draft budget figures.

Although it would surely have been more straightforward to include the grant figures as part of the 20 October release announcing  other aspects of the 2014-15 HE package and the plans for FE bursaries,  this year’s approach is a significant step forward from last year, when the grant figures were not referred to in any government news release.  It holds out the prospect that next year may see a return to the conventional practice of including information about grant levels as part of the main announcement of HE student support plans.

The most recent news release has been covered so far  in The Daily Record  and The Herald –  though both concentrate on a (counter-intuitive) fall in spending on bursaries, and the numbers receiving them, between 2011-12 and 2012-13, evident from the SAAS data.  The freezing of grants is not picked up.

Effect of 2014-15 figures

The latest information shows that the thresholds at which grant and loan rates reduce are  unchanged. This means the maximum package will be available up to £16,999, with steps down at £23,999 and £33,999.   As the table accompanying the figures shows, the new figures will mean the student loan required to access the full value of the package at the lowest incomes will be £5750 for a young students (£23000 over 4 years).  For a mature student, it will be £6750 (£27000 over 4 years).

The NUS is quoted in various articles as intending to lobby for an uplift in grants. Figures are not available for expected grant spending in the current year.  The recently published 2012-13 figures do not allow for the significant reductions applying from this autumn.  However, it seems likely that total grant spending is now around £75m a year, of which perhaps £10m is accounted for by DSA and other smaller grants. Applying an inflation increase to the remaining £65m would cost around £1.2m.

The total  budget for grants and fees increases by £3.6m (1.2% cash)  in 2014-15 and then falls by £0.5m  in 2015-16.  Increased support will need to be found to cover the cost of more fee support for part-timers, already announced for this year.  Also, according to evidence given recently by the Cabinet Secretary to the Education and Culture Committee, student numbers are expected to rise further – their fee and grant costs will fall to this budget.

Finding an additional £1.2 million to spend on grants from within the existing budget estimates  therefore looks pretty difficult – not least in relation to the additional  spending it would embed for 2015-16.  The recent announcements look at first sight to be final decisions. However, the Scottish Government evidently attaches importance to the support of the NUS for its student support package, so it remains possible that this is not yet the final word.

Footnote : other parts of the UK

The 2014-15 figures for English students are available  here. A below-inflation increase of 1% has been applied both to grants and loans, so the the total maximum package for students away from home will be worth £7249 pa.  This is available for incomes up to £25,000, with the grant component of that now worth £3387.   As in Scotland, thresholds for entitlements are the same as last year.

England therefore offers £251 less than Scotland in spending power for students away from home for those up to £16,999.  However, at incomes between £17,000 and £24,999, students away from home will receive between £499 and £999 pa more than in Scotland and, for this group, spending power remains higher in England until family incomes reach just over £50,000.  Students living at home do however generally have higher spending power in Scotland, except for a small group with incomes in the mid-£30,000s, for whom the English package is still marginally higher.

Figures for Wales and Northern Ireland do not yet appear to have been made public.

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