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Scottish Government report on Widening Access: April 2013

November 7, 2013

In April 2013, the Scottish Government laid before the Parliament its Fifth Annual Widening Access Report (5th annual report), produced to comply with Section 4(1)(b) of the Graduate Endowment Abolition (Scotland) Act 2008.  It appears to be the last such report required by the Act.

Reports under Section 4 must assess the impact of the abolition of the endowment on widening access to higher education and must include information on the proportion of Scottish domiciled entrants to higher education from the most deprived areas of Scotland.

The report is therefore mainly concerned with data on participation.  However, it also contains interesting material on student support and student debt.  This post concentrates on that element.

Debt and access

This is an unusual document, because it is an exceptional example of the Scottish Government acknowledging the importance of looking at debt in general, rather than fee debt in isolation.  It also recognises that fee regimes (as in England and elsewhere in the OECD) need not reduce access to higher education, provided that for those from lower incomes, fees are accompanied by public subsidies, through  grants and loans.  These are both significant departures from the sort of arguments generally used by Ministers in Scotland.

Specifically, the report includes these comments (my emphasis added):

“19. When asked about fees, costs and the Graduate Endowment Fee in 2007-08 students said that costs for books/ equipment, rent/ housing, food/drink, entertainment, travel, and commercial loans were of greater concern to students than the Graduate Endowment Fees. This suggests, as noted in previous reports laid in Parliament, that while the Fee could have been a factor in a student’s decision to study at the time, it would be more accurate to consider the Fee in the wider context of costs and debt generally, and how both the fear of, and actual debt, impacts on student behaviour and outcomes.  …

21 Other evidence sources suggest that the fear of debt and cost of study can potentially dissuade prospective students to going to university. People from disadvantaged family backgrounds are especially vulnerable in this respect.
22. BIS research notes that most young people see debt as a normal part of life, but that those with the most negative attitudes to debt are among those least likely to apply to HE. It suggests that students from low income households see the costs of HE as a debt rather than an investment. Those from less privileged backgrounds were more likely to be concerned about debt, and those most averse to debt were among the less willing to participate in HE….
24. While research from BIS has shown that the tuition fees introduced in England in 2006-07 did not impact on participation levels (even by those from deprived backgrounds), they seemed to have an impact on people’s choices of where to study. The research showed that people from more deprived backgrounds tended to choose a university closer to home, often a less prestigious institution. As such those from disadvantaged backgrounds are at risk, unless counterbalancing policies (such as loans and grants) are available to them.
25. The OECD reports similar findings. In OECD countries where students are required to pay tuition fees, and can benefit from public subsidies, there are not lower levels of access to university-level education than the OECD average.”

Student support and debt

The report also outlines recent developments in student support.  It begins by saying (my emphasis again):

“26. Recognition of the impact that debt and fear of debt have on young people entering HE is why this Government has taken a number of actions to tackle the issue of student debt. As well as abolishing the Graduate Endowment Fee, the Scottish Government introduced a number of new funding packages and made changes to support systems to assist students from 2008, including…”

It then proceeds to list the main changes to student support.  However, it omits some highly relevant pieces of information, given the preamble on debt.

The report does not mention that means-tested grant for young people from low-incomes homes was frozen in value in real terms from 2010-11 onwards.

For 2011-12, it notes: “Replacing the travel grant available prior to 2011 with an increase in the ceiling of £350. This increased the cash available to students by £10m, and meant that most students ended up with more money in their pockets.”

The large amount removed from travel grants (around £14m in planned spend, with actual spend in their final year standing at £20m) was not reinvested in other forms of grant.  Instead around half  appears to have been used to pay for more student loan, with the remainder appearing to be lost from the student support system altogether. The “ceiling” referred to as being raised by £350 is the ceiling for loans, although strikingly that clarification is left out.

For 2013-14, the year in which debt levels for the poorest were raised significantly, as a result of a substantial reduction in grants, it says only:

“As part of the Post-16 Education Reform Programme, a new package of student support from academic year 2013-14 will be introduced which includes:

  • An annual minimum income of £7,250, through a combination of bursaries and loans, for students with a family income of less than £17,000 ;
  • All students, irrespective of circumstances, will be eligible for a non-means tested student loan of £4,500 a year; and
  • Part-time students with a personal income of less than £25,000 will from 2013-14 receive the equivalent of full tuition fee support; based on the proportion of the course they are studying.”

It could reasonably be argued that, in this specific context,  the limited way in which the 2013-14 package is described falls well short of providing a full and clear account to the Parliament of the impact of the changes.  The reduction in means-tested grants in 2013-14 substantially increased student debt for those from lower-income homes.  Yet paragraph 26 clearly and puzzingly seeks to claim that these changes (and others which reduced the value of grant support)  were pursued specifically as part of an agenda to tackle student debt.

I have not yet found  any government press release, PQ [note: see update below] or other parliamentary statement drawing attention to publication of the report and no media reports of its contents.  The data on widening access might have been expected to be relevant to the consideration of the Post-16 Bill, under scrutiny at the time, and it is possible the Government drew the Committee’s attention to the report in the context of proceedings on that Bill.

The only  on-line version I have so far been able to find is this cached pdf.

Update:  The report was referred to in this PQ response from early May:

Question S4W-14427: George Adam, Paisley, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 24/04/2013

To ask the Scottish Government how many full-time students from the country’s most deprived areas, and who started their course over the last three years, would have been eligible to pay the graduate endowment fee.

Answered by Michael Russell (07/05/2013): In order to provide an answer we would need to look at the circumstances of every full-time student in Scotland and apply these to the old eligibility criteria for the graduate endowment. This is not something we routinely do and is therefore not information that we hold centrally.

The 5th report following the abolition of the Graduate Endowment was placed before Parliament on 4 April 2013.”

Current Status: Answered by Michael Russell on 07/05/2013
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