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Why is this site all about student grants and debt?

June 18, 2014

I have been asked by some people how this site started: the answer is, by accident.

One of my responsibilities in the civil service, more than a decade ago, was student support.  Once you’ve worked closely on something, you never completely lose interest, but student funding wasn’t something I followed in detail afterwards: other jobs and, latterly, family life were keeping me busy enough.

Around 18 months ago – and around 18 months after I’d left the civil service with no particular intention of ever revisiting this topic – something I saw one evening made me  want to check a fact which was most easily done by looking at the Student Awards Agency for Scotland’s website.  I can’t remember what it was, it didn’t seem very important at the time, but most probably a news story about tuition fees.  It was simple curiosity and the sort of thing many of us do with news stories all the time these days.

When I went on-line, I found myself looking at the (then) next year’s figures for student support and was surprised how low the figure was for grants.  I could remember it had been higher in cash terms ten years before.  I was surprised I couldn’t remember any fuss about grant cuts, but put that down to having been very busy, particularly in my last few years in the civil service.  Still pursuing my original question, whatever it was, I went back a year in the figures, to 2012-13, and was even more surprised to see that the grant was a lot higher.  The cuts, in other words, were topical right now – they hadn’t yet taken effect.  Yet even though I’d have said I’d been following the news pretty well  over the past year, and this was a topic I had some interest in,  I couldn’t remember seeing anything about them.

And that surprised me more.  Because I knew that grant cuts increased debt and I could remember how much political and media heat had been generated a decade before by the issue of student debt.  In particular, I could see that the extra debt due to grant reductions was going to be much greater for some students than the debt saving which had been produced by  the high-profile abolition of the graduate endowment a few years before.

I need at this point to make a declaration for transparency:  I’d worked on the endowment’s introduction as an official, so I remembered very clearly why it had been controversial and was  confident reading the figures, but – and this is important – however committed I was to doing the best job I could on it at the time, I hold no special brief for it now as a policy.  That’s the point about civil servants – they do the government’s work, not their own and the best response I can offer to anyone who finds that alien  is provided by Yes Minister (quote at end of post).

My simple initial question was, where was the debate about what was happening with grant?  When a bit of googling showed that, despite a couple of attempts in the parliament to raise it,  the issue simply hadn’t generated much heat or even much media attention, I got more curious.  What had changed in Scotland?

Everything since has flowed from that initial curiosity.  I googled a bit more. Looking at the government press notice brought out how opaque the public announcements had been.  The emphasis in the news release, and elsewhere, on the Scottish system being “best in the UK” made me look for the supporting analysis.  When it became obvious that neither the Scottish government nor the press had published that, I looked up the figures for England for myself and did some comparative calculations.  I almost (like lots of people in Scotland) forgot about Wales and Northern Ireland – but it was looking at the Welsh system as an afterthought, I’m ashamed to say, which produced some of the most surprising comparisons. I found government statistics on student borrowing and budget projections which showed rapidly rising student debt.

After I’d  amassed a lot of calculations, all done in spare moments, it became clear there was an interesting story to tell which wasn’t being told,  and I thought I’d have a go at putting it into words.  Once I’d done that for myself, again in spare moments, I thought the results were important enough to be worth sharing more widely and I set about looking for ways to do that (including this site). I continue to do so.

It was just a thread I started pulling, in other words.  Each answer seems to raise a new question,   it still deserves more attention and no-one else seems to be looking – so I keep at it, with three motivations.

The first, which has grown the more I have worked on this, is a conviction that the current system is profoundly unfair.  It is simply not right that graduates who started out from poorer homes will have to pay more of their future earnings back to the state than those who did not: that is absolutely regressive, other parts of the UK avoid this and, tellingly, I have yet to hear anyone acting in any official capacity come out and defend that outcome.  The focus is always on other things – absence of fees, comparisons with England,  students’ immediate spending power, UCAS statistics.  Whatever system of student support we have, and whatever levels of graduate debt we agree are defensible –  or at least unavoidable, given the financial context –  that debt should not be distributed in a way which penalises people for starting out poor.

Second, even if it turns out my views are not shared by most people in Scotland, I’d argue we ought to be talking about what is happening here in more accurate terms.  If the  belief is that it doesn’t matter if most poorer people end up with quite a bit of debt to get a degree, as long as some students can still end up with little or none, then let’s say so in terms.  Points made in discussion and  material in the public domain too often fail to reflect properly the reality of the system.  We should do better.  Until we do, it will be impossible to know  whether the current system commands general support  despite its unequal effects, or because these effects aren’t understood.

The last reason I stick with this is out of a curiosity about Scottish political debate.  Why don’t we worry about this? Why are we better at quoting the fee costs for English students than the debt costs for poor Scots?  Why do stories that surface on this vanish quickly without trace? Why has the parliament not done more to seek detailed explanations from the government about the effect of these changes on poorer students?  And why hasn’t the press picked it up more?  What are the dynamics – and values – which make tuition fees hypnotically fascinating and student grants, and debt for poorer students, a non-issue?  Why, in short, are grant cuts not a cause celebre up there with fees and charges? How does this blind-eye fit with Scotland’s self-perception as being progressive and socially just?

There are questions here that go beyond student support.  Meantime, however, this aspect of student funding remains under-discussed and so that’s what this site continues to focus on.




(From The Whisky Priest: “Bernard, I have served eleven governments in the past thirty years. If I had believed in all their policies, I would have been passionately committed to keeping out of the Common Market, and passionately committed to going into it. I would have been utterly convinced of the rightness of nationalising steel. And of denationalising it and renationalising it. On capital punishment, I’d have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolishionist. I would’ve been a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a grammar school preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac….”)





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