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Student support in Europe

April 4, 2014

This useful post on Bella Caledonia by Jim and Margaret Cuthbert (both former government statisticians)   puts the  issues raised  by tuition fees into a European context, linking to a EURIDYCE report from 2011, Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe: Funding and the Social Dimension 2011 available here (look for the report dated 16 September 2011).

Their focus is fees (including some interesting speculation about the general future of cross-border fee funding in Europe), so they don’t say much about wider student support.  They do though note that some countries use tax incentives and family allowances as part of the package.     Questions could be asked about how far tax reliefs  tend to exclude the least well-off, which may explain why they do not feature in any of the Scandinavian systems, for example.  However,  the interaction between student support and the tax and benefits system is one which a future Scottish Government might want to look at further, either under independence or if there is further devolution of those functions.

More generally,  it is regularly often observed that while fees  are often charged across the EU, they are at substantially lower levels even than those pre-dating the 2012 hike in levels. But we hear less about what  living cost support goes with that. So this EURIDYCE report is a  useful resource for those interested in that dimension.  It is now a bit out of date, but it is possible to update the information using other on-line sources.

Notably, the Scandinavian countries all assess students independently of their parents, once they are too old to receive family allowance (ie child benefit equivalents).  That can have interesting consequences. As this article (whose arguments will seem familiar to readers of other posts on this site) explains:

“Swedish colleges and universities are free. Yep. Totally free.

But students there still end up with a lot of debt. The average at the beginning of 2013 was roughly 124,000 Swedish krona ($19,000). Sure, the average US student was carrying about 30% more, at $24,800….

85% of Swedish students graduate with debt, versus only 50% in the US. Worst of all, new Swedish graduates have the highest debt-to-income ratios of any group of students in the developed world (according to estimates of what they’re expected to earn once they get out of school)—somewhere in the neighborhood of 80%. The US, where we’re constantly being told that student debt is hitting crisis proportions, the average is more like 60%. Why?

College in Sweden is free. But rent isn’t. And food isn’t. …  But again, this stuff isn’t free for students in other European countries either. So why do Swedish students end up with more debt? It’s pretty simple, actually. In Sweden, young people are expected to pay for things themselves instead of sponging off their parents.”

In passing, the  figures for average US student debt suggest that it will be pretty similar to what is now facing low-income Scots … but that’s  another story.  The piece also includes a useful graph showing how in many non-Scandinavian European counties, low fees correlate with much more limited access to state help with living costs, raising a real “ability to pay” issue.

Generally, Scandinavian levels of living cost support appear to be at a similar level to those in the UK, but before taking into account any differences in the cost of living. Finland however provides a lower amount of living cost support across the board.  Others – including the very generous Danish system – are moving to an increasing focus on linking support to academic performance.  Iceland has a wholly loan-based system of living cost support.  Loan schemes in all these countries charge higher interest rates than in Scotland and have a variety of repayment terms, linked to a great or lesser extent to earnings.

Ireland makes no use of loans, but its total maximum living cost support is much lower than in the UK. Its student contribution is 3000 Euros pa in 2014-15.  This is means-tested, so that only a proportion of students from higher income households pay it.  Those who are liable receive no state help (ie there is no equivalent to the UK’s fee loans) and have to find the cash to pay for it upfront.

In 2014-15, the Netherlands will charge a fee of 1,900 Euros (although in some cases fees can be up to 5 times higher, with students over 30 among those charged more).  Students can borrow to cover fees.  The Netherlands  means tests on parental income for around two-thirds of support, which has a maximum value similar to that in the UK.  Some or all of the loan repayment can be waived depending on academic performance.

This table  Student support in the EU has a go at summarising some of the key features of  these schemes, with some updating, with the caveat that any summary of these various models will not do justice to their full complexity.  This site is another useful source of information, both on fees and living cost support across Europe.  In all this it’s worth remembering that looking at the systems in this way tells us nothing about their relative cost (a non-trivial issue,  as long as there is competition for public resources) and how well each system performs in supporting participation and access by those from poorer backgrounds, or retention and successful completion, or access to  different types of HE.  In Denmark, for example, this study (you will need to open the linked PDF) notes that  “short-cycle” courses accounts for much of the country’s higher education, with levels of participation in degree-length HE relatively low in European terms.  Also, it’s worth asking – why only compare ourselves with Europe? As the site linked at the start of this paragraph observes,  compared to the rest of the world, Europe is unusual in generally setting very low fees.

How would we feel about having no grant (Iceland)? Substantially reducing the total value of living cost support (Finland, Ireland)? Making support more dependent on academic performance (Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands)? Increasing  the interest on loans or reducing the link between repayment and earnings (widespread)? Switching more of the opportunities for HE away from degrees and towards HNs (Denmark)? Charging older students more (the Netherlands)?  No state help with living costs for most students (Spain and others)?A cultural shift away from parental contributions and towards complete reliance on loans at higher incomes (Sweden)? These are all features of one or another of the low/no fee European systems sometimes looked to as exemplars.  Some of them will  appeal as policies to some readers, but not to others.

In other words, systems come as a package and while comparisons are always interesting, they should be handled with care.

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