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Student borrowing up by 58% in Scotland in latest year

July 20, 2014

Last month the Student Loans Company published its annual statistical round-up of student borrowing in each part of the UK.  The figures do not yet appear to have been picked up by the media.

The figures show that in the latest financial year, 2013-14,  student borrowing rose most quickly for students from Scotland,  increasing in one year by £160m or 58%, from £277 million in 2012-13 to £436 million in 2013-14.  The maintenance loan element of borrowing, the part of the system over which the Scottish Government has complete control, rose by 64%, from £249 million  to £409 million.

This is the largest percentage jump  in student borrowing in a single year in any part of the UK since the mid-1990’s and by far the largest annual increase in absolute terms in Scotland ever (see table at foot of post).   It will be interesting to see if this continues to go unnoticed or qualify as “not news”.   [Note: it has now been picked up by The Guardian and The Herald.]

The figures are in line with the forecast included in the Scottish budget as far back as October 2012.  However the large increase in the budgeted provision barely registered at the time and, significantly, this is the first hard evidence of the forecasts turning into actual debt for Scottish students.

Borrowing also rose in 2013-14 in other parts of the UK, though more slowly.  The table below shows the change year-on-year and also since 2011-12, the last year unaffected by the raising of the fee cap to £9,000 for English students.  Figures are shown for the combined total of borrowing for maintenance and fees in each country, plus maintenance loans only for Scotland.

FY 2011-12 FY 2012-13 FY 2013-14 % change: 2013-14 compared to:
£m £m £m 2012-13 2011-12
England 5966 7144 9021 26 51
Northern Ireland 228 253 273 8 20
Scotland 236(236) 277(249) 436(409) 58(64) 85(73)
Wales 265 287 329 15 24


It’s important to acknowledge that some of the increase in Scotland since 2011-12  is due to funding higher fee loans for Scots going to the rest of the UK: removing that gives an increase in maintenance loans of just 73% since 2011-12. But, surprisingly,  a slight drop in the value of fee loans in 2013-14 actually pulls down the year-on-year change over the past 12 months.

Because these are financial – not academic – year figures, they capture systems in transition both in Scotland and England.  This means the whole effect of recent changes in these two countries will not have fed through.  Not all of the effect of changes in Scotland from 2013 (see below)  will be evident here. Similarly, the impact of phasing in higher fees in England from 2012 has not yet fed through completely.  The systems – and therefore the figures – for Wales and Northern Ireland are more stable.

Relative borrowing levels across the UK

Scotland now moves to having the second-highest absolute amount of student borrowing in the UK and by extension, and by a decent margin,  the largest absolute amount of borrowing among the devolved administrations in the UK.

To give a crude (and that’s all that’s possible at this stage) idea of what this means for actual student debt levels, total borrowing for 2013-14 can be divided by an estimate of the number of borrowers in each country.  I have used 2012-13 academic year figures, as these are available for all 4 jurisdictions, using Scottish Government statistics and for the rest of the UK,  the most recent figures for the nearest equivalent to total borrowers from the SLC.  It is important to be aware however that, as this combines data from two different years and borrower numbers may be growing at different rates in different countries,  these figures are neither true averages for each country or precise comparators.

They do however provide a reasonable indication that though pro rata the number of students taking out debt, annual  borrowing was still lowest in Scotland in FY 2013-14, the figures for all three devolved nations are converging, while England is pulling away,  all of which was predictable from looking at the detail of the systems, examined in more depth here.  It needs to be borne in mind also that these are annual figures and that degree courses are generally a year longer in Scotland.  The usual caveat also applies that variation round the average can be expected to be greater in Scotland with, uniquely, those at lower incomes from Scotland likely to have above-average debt.

2013-14 FY borrowing divided by 2012-13 AY borrowers (£)
England          8,924
Northern Ireland          6,214
Scotland          5,344
Wales          6,191

Background to Scottish increase

The rise in Scotland is a direct result of the Scottish Government’s decision to rely almost entirely on loans for maintenance support from the autumn of 2013, as summarised here.

The Scottish Government will publish figures for the 2013-14 academic year in October, which will show the full effect of the changes.  The October figures will also show the extent to which borrowing under the new system is skewed towards  the poorest in practice.  This data does not allow that to be assessed.

Historic borrowing figures

Also included in the recent SLC data is the average amount of borrowing for those entering repayment (i.e. recent leavers) in each country.

In the past, these figures have been highlighted by the Scottish Government to demonstrate the difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK, although in contrast to some previous years, the SG did not issue a news release about this last month.

This separate post explains why those figures cannot be safely used as a guide to how the student support system functions in Scotland compared to other parts of the UK.


Background figures: Change in student borrowing since 1990

The table below shows the year-on-year change in student borrowing since the introduction of loans in 1990.  Figures are cash values.

Sources: UK/England figures from this recent House of Commons Library briefing note.  Scottish figures from documents in the Scottish Government’s annual student support statistics eg here


  • Up to and including 1999, identical rules applied across the UK and patterns of change will have been similar in all 4 countries.
  • A figure for actual loan borrowing in Scotland in 1999 and 2000 is not included in the published statistics. However, the amount authorised for loans in each of those years was £155m and £193m. The table below estimates that 97.5% was converted into actual borrowing, based on take-up figures published for later years.
  • Separate figures for Wales and NI are not included here: figures going back further than 2009-10 are not included in the latest SLC statistics and though they are almost certainly available, from 1999, systems in Wales and Northern Ireland have either been the same as in England or, in more recent years, policy decisions have been taken to limit the impact of increased debt on student compared to England, so percentage changes in those countries would be expected to be around or below the figure for England.
  • Comparison with SLC figures suggests SG loan statistics cover only maintenance loans and exclude fee loans issued for study in rUK: an estimated figure of 64%+, rather than 58%+, is therefore included in the table for 2013.
Academic Year starting All UK England only Scotland only
£m % change yr-on-yr £m % change yr-on-yr £m % change yr-on-yr
1990 70
1991 139 99
1992 227 63
1993 317 40
1994 539 70
1995 701 30
1996 877 25
1997 941 7
1998 1234 31
1999 1795 45 151est
2000 2204 23 188est 25est
2001 2490 13 221 17est
2002 2626 5 224 1
2003 2712 3 217 -3
2004 2794 3 203 -6
2005 2933 5 2496 187 -8
2006 3421 37 180 -4
2007 4020 18 178 -1
2008 4698 17 181 2
2009 5214 11 193 6
2010 5567 7 220 14
2011 6067 9 240 9
2012 7658 26 250 4
2013 9714 27 tbc 64%+est

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