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All students are equal …

May 28, 2014

A recent Guardian article reported work I had done showing how recent cuts in student grants in Scotland are increasing debt for poorer students, more than cancelling out the impact of abolishing the graduate endowment in 2007. I had calculated that this left students from better-off backgrounds as the overall beneficiaries of policy in Scotland in recent years.

Fifty people took the trouble to respond. Two-thirds of them disagreed, often strongly, with my analysis.   It remains controversial in Scotland to question the way we go about funding students, so the critical reaction was no surprise. Some of the arguments were familiar. The one I hadn’t expected, however, was that the poor should simply expect more debt as a result of going to university.

So, students from poorer backgrounds may leave university with higher levels of loan debt than those with family backing. Hardly ground breaking news,” said someone who described himself as working in higher education in Scotland, in the most recommended post on the thread. Others observed: “Higher income families children certainly start, continue and end with a financial advantage – nothing will change that fact! “ … “All that this indicates is that students from wealthier backgrounds benefit from having, er, wealthier backgrounds.” … “Poorer students are always going to leave uni with more debts … That is such an obvious truism it’s not worth a newspaper article, let alone a report”… “Short of a Bolshevik revolution, that’s not going to change.”

Yet in fact there is nothing inevitable about sending our poorest students out into the world with the most government debt. Even in the absence of Bolsheviks, it does not happen in any other part of the UK. Using higher maintenance grants, all three other countries do more to recognise inequalities in family income. As a result, only for Scottish students is it true that the lower the income, the higher the government debt. Within Wales, where the maximum grant is over £5000, lower-income students are not only the lowest borrowers but even with fees will usually end up with less debt than their Scottish peers. That’s another story, however.

The poorest were anyway already doing pretty well, several people suggested. As one poster explained: “As far as I was aware, ‘poor’ students get a higher bursary, or used to, which they never had to pay back, I knew people getting thousands of pounds, so I dunno how that makes them ‘worse off’.. whereas I have taken out £4K loans every year, so after 4 years will have to pay back £16K. (however ive been putting it all into my savings account to buy a flat in the future)”. The maximum grant for a young student in Scotland is now £1,750, falling to £1,000 when incomes reach £17,000. The expected borrowing to go with that next year is £5,750.

It was “unfortunate”, one poster admitted, that students who started out from poorer backgrounds are likely to end up owing the government the most.   Yet even those who were generally sympathetic to more use of grant, as some were, saw no evidence of a systemic failure, only an essentially good system that could perhaps do better.

There was fierce resistance to the idea that Scotland’s low grants were in any way related to its decision to prioritise spending on fees. “There should be more financial support for living costs for students from poorer backgrounds. I think we can all agree on that. However why is this being linked to tuition fees?” Both should be possible, some said.

Well, in theory, yes. But in practice governments make choices. Spending on grants and fees comes out of a single pot at the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS). There is less money in that pot than there used to be and, with fees sacrosanct, the cuts to it have fallen exclusively on grants. Annual spending on these will have reduced by at least £40m, or around one-third, by next year. Meantime, had the graduate endowment continued, it would now be providing SAAS with a cash injection of over £30m a year. It may not be comfortable to admit, but what’s available for grants has clearly been affected by policy on fees.

On the thread, only one poster identified herself as currently being a low-income student. She was from England, and praised the low fee/high grant regime she enjoyed as a pre-2012 entrant. Another referred to a friend who felt “betrayed” that grant cuts of £1000, and more, had been imposed on students mid-course, with no announcement. Otherwise, the views of current or soon to be students with incomes below the grant line appeared, as so often, to be absent from the discussion.

So perhaps it is not surprising that those defending the current model for funding students in Scotland seemed not to see providing grants as such a priority task for the state as preventing charges. Make tuition free and the important job is done, was the common message.

Under the post-war settlement, by contrast, free tuition and decent levels of student grant for students from lower income families were both seen as essential. Other parts of the UK have departed from free tuition, most dramatically in England, but resurrected grant. In Scotland, by contrast, free tuition is vigorously defended as an entitlement but grant is diminishing and regarded as, at best, a “nice to have”. For most living costs, though not for any element of fees, loan will do. As a result, only in Scotland are those who start university with limited access to family support likely to sign away to the state a great deal more of their future earnings than those whose families are better-off.

I can’t agree with those who see no fundamental problem with that and suspect we might usefully hear more from those most affected by our changing attitude to grant. But any discussion here is a start.

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