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Student grant cuts in England and Scotland: contrasts in reporting

November 23, 2013

The Guardian reported on 23 November  (“Poorest students face £350m cut in grants”) that grants may be cut in England, based on sight of a leaked UK Government document.  The Evening Standard then covered the Guardian story.

The report suggests that after the next election (ie in 2015) grants for the poorest could be cut by £1000 – with that amount being replaced by extra loan – and the upper threshold for grant entitlement reduced from £42,000 to around £35,000.

The report notes: “Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students, said the plans were “outrageous”. She said: “Any proposal to balance the books on the backs of the poorest students would be disgraceful.””

It’s worth noting that:

  • the possible policy for which the UK Government is being criticised in relation to means-tested grants is very similar to what has already been implemented  by the Scottish Government.  This year the SG has reduced maximum grants by £890, but also dropped the threshold for maximum grants and introduced a sharp downwards step in entitlement at that point, resulting in losses of over £1500 for some low-income students students. Grant has been replaced by loan in exactly the same way as proposed in the leaked report.
  • the reaction of student leaders has been significantly different in each case. In Scotland in 2012, grant reductions were accepted not only without criticism, but without comment, as part of a wider package of changes which received  strong NUS support: the issue of greater indebtedness for poorer students was not regarded as salient, and loan and grant discussed as though they were effectively interchangeable.
  • the maximum grants and upper threshold for any grant in England would still be higher than in Scotland, if these changes applied.  Mature students in England would still have a much more generous grant regime.  It is not clear if there are also plans to bring down the threshold at which maximum grant would apply: if not, this will remain substantially higher in England.
  • the proposals are described as still subject to high-level political discussion, suggesting that the grant-loan switch is regarded as politically sensitive by the UK government.

The contrast in the reporting of the Scottish actual and English possible policies is thought-provoking.

First, the Guardian’s own coverage last year of the Scottish changes – which included exactly the same grant-loan switch – was wholly complimentary.  However, the way in which that package was presented  to the press meant that the grant cuts were completely invisible.   The contrast between two stories in the same paper dealing with fundamentally the same thing brings out how central were the non-transparent terms of the Scottish announcement, and the support of the NUS,  to obtaining immediate positive coverage for the Scottish Government’s announcement.  Being able to contrast the two Guardian stories  provides a fascinating case study of  media management in contemporary Scotland.

Also, the leaked UK document deals with other aspects of higher education funding, but it is the potential impact on low-income students which has been selected as the headline.  By contrast, even once actual grant cuts in Scotland became apparent and concerns were raised by the opposition parties last autumn, there was little coverage (and none at all on the BBC or in The Herald: the latter has only acknowledged the issue very recently, the former still not at all, as far as I can tell).

Today’s report raises the interesting question of why a reluctance in the heavy-weight media to cover changes which are only detrimental to poorer students should be such a distinctively Scottish phenomenon, when the rhetoric of Scottish politics in general, and around higher education in particular, is so strongly identified with the idea of social justice.

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