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The rhetoric of “ability to pay” and its impact on student choice in Scotland

August 13, 2014

Tomorrow clearing will open for universities in the rest of the UK.

As this previous post notes, opportunities through clearing are now pretty limited for Scots in Scotland.

However, for those willing to take on the extra debt, there will be a far wider range of courses available south of the border [Update: as reported here, for example].

For many, the prospect of high debt for fees will be enough to make these opportunities too unattractive to consider.  However, there is evidence that among young Scots and their parents, there is some confusion about the financial implications of going south. This very useful study of young people’s attitudes towards tuition fees and debt by Sarah Minty of Edinburgh University notes,

we found that Scottish interviewees’ understanding of the English tuition fee system was often inaccurate. Pupils in a number of the Scottish schools appeared to view the English tuition fees as an upfront fee, and there were a number of references to their families ‘who would not be able to afford to pay £9,000 a year’.

The Scottish Government’s rhetoric of “ability to learn, not ability to pay” – a phrase absolutely central to its account of what distinguishes the Scottish system and always included in any public statement about student funding – seems to have left the impression on some that the cost of fees outside Scotland has to be met directly from families’ pockets: otherwise, people might reasonably ask,  why would “ability to pay” be mentioned?  Although the Scottish Government also sometimes refers to high debt for fees, there is nothing in the presentation to prevent  this being taken to mean private debt.

The availability to all UK students of dedicated, income-contingent government loan, as is used for funding living costs, to cover the whole upfront cost of fees and, in effect, defer their impact, appears not always to be not clearly understood in Scotland. Anecdote is a poor substitute for proper research, but speaking to others and reading comments on-line, adds to this impression.

That there are also institutional fee waiver schemes and bursaries for low-income students is also rarely mentioned.  In addition,  discussion of comparative costs usually overlooks that the £27,000 often quoted as the extra cost of fees needs to be set against shorter length courses in many cases, saving  a year’s worth of living costs, which Scots will need to fund almost entirely through government loan, earnings,  family funds or commercial debt, given their limited (in most cases, nil) access to grant.

A student studying for an honours degree in Scotland who lives away from home will need to fund some £30,000 to £40,000 of living costs over four years from various sources, with little or none of this coming in the form of non-repayable government cash.  If they study for three years in the rest of the UK,  they will take on government debt of £27,000 for  fees (on some courses a little less), but will be likely to save thousands of pounds in living costs. This is before taking into account any access to fee waivers or bursaries provided direct by institutions south of the border to those at lower incomes, which may be worth anything from low thousands to (in the exceptional case of Oxford) over £20,000 in value over the course. [Update: there are also signs that financial benefits offered by some universities in England may be extending to all students: again, see here.] A shorter course also means entering the labour market a year sooner.

Indeed, for those who find the gap between total living costs and available government support hardest to fund, mainly those living away from home from lowish to middle incomes, a high-fee but shorter length course should mean less demand on their family’s immediate ability to pay, even though it increases their total student loan debt and repayments in the long term.

It is not in the interest of anyone in the Scottish system to correct any misunderstandings here.  It suits the Scottish Government to portray the system in other parts of the UK in the least flattering terms possible.  Universities in Scotland have no interest in encouraging young people to apply to counterparts elsewhere.  NUS Scotland represents the interests of students in Scottish institutions: it doesn’t have in its membership prospective students and, given its  rigorous opposition to fees, unsurprisingly tends to follow the government line on “ability to pay”, as here.  Opposition politicians may well be wary of running any risk of being presented as defending, or harbouring ambitions for, £9,000 fees if they challenge the terms in which the Scottish system is presented, given that that charge has been levelled at them merely for challenging cuts to grants, as here.  The Scottish press does not seem to see deconstructing the government rhetoric on this as falling within its remit.

The group most clearly motivated to explain how fee funding works in practice might  be guidance teachers and those involved in widening access programmes: but even among this group there may be a hesitancy or discomfort about suggesting higher cost options than are available here, and possibly even sometimes an incomplete understanding  of how the numbers work.  Universities from England  do have an interest in attracting good quality Scottish applicants and have sometimes tried to enter the debate.

It is not particularly helpful that the SAAS website  states “If you don’t have the money to pay your fees at the start of your course, you can apply to us for a student loan to pay part or all of your fees.”  Though this at least makes it clear that loan is available for fees, it does not clarify that for all those who in Scotland would qualify for free tuition, this loan can cover the full fee, and will be available without means testing.  That last point was on the site last year, but for some reason has now been removed, though it is still included in the printed material, eg here.

It is impossible to test how far Scottish Government rhetoric rather than the actual implications of higher fees may have put off some  people from applying – either through clearing or directly – to universities elsewhere in the UK.  People who fully understand how the system works might well still choose to discount courses outside Scotland, even to the extent of not taking up higher education at all, rather than take on the additional debt.  But, particularly given that how far the debt  actually has to be repaid in practice will depend on future earnings, it is conceivable that more Scots might be inclined to take advantage of the further opportunities available in the rest of the UK if the funding implications were explained more clearly.

Not least as the number of places available is likely to grow faster south of the border than in Scotland over the next few years, and looking there might for some mean the difference between doing a degree or not going to university at all, it would be a great pity if any Scots were being discouraged from considering opportunities outside Scotland by the rhetoric rather than the reality.


Update:  further evidence

Further examples of confusion over the issue of “ability to pay”  seen since the piece above was originally posted.

This is Money (13 September 2014)

‘James is doing a five-year masters degree in chemistry at Edinburgh and if the tuition fees weren’t free he would not have been able to afford to follow that dream.’

Household leaflet distributed by Yes Scotland (September 2014):

Last year I met girls in England who want to study medicine, but are relying on scholarships because the fees are so high.  I felt awful for them.  The amazing thing about free tuition fees is that no matter what your background is, you can go to university and not have to worry about money.

Similar, but longer, text available on the associated website:

I’m so lucky that I can look forward to studying without having to worry about tuition fees. I worked in a respite centre in England last year and met lots of girls who want to study medicine, but because the fees are so expensive they’re relying on winning a scholarship to cover the costs. I felt awful for them.

The amazing thing about free tuition fees is that no matter what your family background, you can go to university and not have to worry about finding the money [emphasis in original]

Compare that to up here where some of my friends from my football club just wouldn’t be able to go to university if they had to pay. The amazing thing about free tuition fees is that no matter what your family background, you can go to university and not have to worry about finding the money.


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