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NUS Scotland and the limits of representation

August 19, 2014

A principal argument used by the Scottish Government (and others) in response to criticism, by this author and others,  of the effect of its policies on poorer students is that its approach has the support of NUS Scotland: as here.   The government has suggested in effect that the support of NUS Scotland means student funding arrangements in Scotland should be regarded as beyond challenge.

As a necessary response to that, this post considers the characteristics of NUS Scotland as an organisation, how these may influence the position it has taken and the implications of that for the debate as a whole. It argues that for purely structural reasons, NUS Scotland should be expected to focus on issues which serve the interest of the majority of its members, particularly those which offer immediate gains, while matters affecting the long-term interests of the poorer minority of students,  whether in absolute terms or relative to the better-off majority, are more vulnerable to being overlooked.  As will be seen, this is not a new situation or one unique to Scotland, but it is one which those outwith the student movement, in government, the press and elsewhere, ought to bear in mind when using NUS support as conclusive evidence that a policy is right.

Who does NUS Scotland represent?

It is an obvious point to make, if easily overlooked, that NUS Scotland is a body whose members elect its leadership to represent their interests.  It is not a pure campaign group such as, say, Save The Children or the Child Poverty Action Group. So the position its leadership takes on any issue needs to represent, or at least not conflict with,  the interests of the majority of its members, who are drawn from all students studying in Scotland.

In 2012-13, among the 131,520 full-time, mainly undergraduate, students supported by the Scottish Government in Scotland, and directly affected by its policies on student support, just 37%  (48,785) were eligible for one of the two main means-tested bursaries.   Some 13,000 EU students are included in the overall total, who are only entitled to fee support.  Removing these from the figures increases the percentage of grant holders, but only to 41%.   As mature students are disproportionately likely to claim grant, among young full-time Scottish undergraduates the proportion claiming grant is more like one-third.  Further, students at university tend to come from higher income homes than those undertaking HE in an FE college.  In other words, the majority of full-time Scottish students in higher education are still disproportionately drawn from the better-off parts of the population and this is particularly true of young people and especially young people at university. 

A further significant number of Scottish students study part-time.  In 2012-13 there were around 80,000 such  students in Scottish higher education.  It is likely that this group includes relatively few rUK, EU or international students.  Scottish part-time students have an interest in fee policy (their fee support is means-tested), but are not eligible for grant.  Therefore, among all Scottish students in Scotland, only around a quarter are likely to be affected by changes to grant.

Added to that, while the official statistics do not provide data on the share of total students by domicile, in 2012-13 one-quarter  of entrants to HE in Scotland – some 35,000 – were from outside Scotland.  Of non-Scots, some are directly affected by Scottish government decisions on fees (some EU and rUK undergraduates) but none by its approach to maintenance funding.

In total there were 278,000 students in higher education in Scotland in 2012-13.  Less than one-fifth were affected by reductions to student grants: such reductions are irrelevant to the better-off, post-graduates, part-timers, rest of UK students, EU students and international students.

NUS Scotland membership, particularly its voting members, will not necessarily mirror the student body as a whole.  However, even if they come predominantly from Scotland and the rest of the UK,  it is very unlikely that grant is relevant to the majority of active NUS members. Curiously, defending the changes in October 2013 NUS noted that only a minority (one-fifth, as it happens) of students were mainly concerned about reducing debt, with the majority more interested in having more to live on.  It would have been interesting to have seen that result broken down by income.

NUS Scotland’s priorities

In relation to higher education student support, the issues given priority by NUS Scotland in recent years have been maintaining free tuition and reducing student hardship, that is, improving students’ total immediate spending power, through the combined value of living cost loans and grants.

NUS Scotland has worked hard to raise awareness of the immediate financial pressures facing students.  By 2012, the value of total upfront living cost support in Scotland had fallen well behind levels in England and Wales, creating real “ability to pay” problems for low and middle income families, and those students from better off families who, for whatever reason, were not supporting their children.  The 2013 changes here saw significant increases in the value of upfront support which in the short-run have benefited almost all Scottish undergraduates, including those at middle and upper incomes. More details here.  Campaigning on hardship, in other words, has provided immediate advantages to most of its Scottish members and probably strikes a chord with many non-Scots.

Free tuition also appeals across the income range, particularly when considered in complete isolation from its implications for wider spending on student support. It embraces the interests of:

  • Scottish domiciled full-time undergraduates, with free tuition
  • non-UK EU undergraduate students, also with free tuition
  • part-time undergraduate students, for whom tuition fees are means-tested and where NUS Scotland has successfully lobbied for more students to be brought within the means-test
  • undergraduates from the rest of the UK,  whose fee levels are also determined by the Scottish Government, albeit that Scottish Ministers have argued they have no alternative but to copy policy south of the border for this group.

NUS Scotland has also expressed concern at the level of fees for overseas students. So this again is a policy with very wide potential appeal. Indeed, at UK level, the NUS has suffered significant challenges to its authority as the voice of students, because of perceptions that it has been too weak on tuition fees.  Grants do not have the same rallying effect, as their absence from this recent letter signed by a large number of  student representatives from across Scotland and England (though curiously not, at first sight, any from Wales or Northern Ireland) demonstrates, once again.

This sort of observation about NUS is not new.  In 1999, Ben Jackson, the former President of the NUS in Cambridge, wrote this piece in the THES, saying:

The proposal to scrap grants, cheerfully accepted by both the Labour party [Note: then in power at Westminster] and the National Union of Students, has largely avoided critical scrutiny, since it has been lost in the brouhaha about tuition fees. The absence of public debate has turned out to be politically convenient for everyone concerned except, that is, for students from poorer backgrounds, who will shortly be £10,000 in debt, nearly £3,000 more than those from middle and higher income groups, despite their much heralded exemption from fees.

As well as questions of how many students are affected by particular policies, there’s a question about when effects are felt.  Addressing hardship has an immediate, short-term impact: the loan repayment comes much later. While loan-funded fees have a long-term impact, they are wrongly believed by some  (possibly many in Scotland, see here) to have an immediate impact on household finances.

Despite research evidence that school-age pupils, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, are relatively debt averse, there is evidence from the NUS and others that short-term financial considerations outweigh concern about the longer term effects of student debt, for students actually in higher education. In below the line comments on recent press articles, some students (probably from above the grant line, and therefore from middle to high incomes, on the basis of the details they provide)  have welcomed the extra living cost loan, because of the short-term benefits.

These factors are enough by themselves to explain why it would make sense for  NUS Scotland to welcome a package of increased living cost support and free tuition, despite the associated reductions in the grant budget.  Under the new arrangements, all full-time Scottish undergraduates are short-term winners, while the long-term losers are in the minority and very possibly more concerned at present with their immediate funding.  If they are willing to borrow to make up the loss, they will not feel the effects for years and indeed may never realise that they are paying a substantial penalty for having started out poor: it will never be obvious.

This, emphatically, is not intended to suggest that the NUS leadership in Scotland has not been genuinely committed to the policies it has promoted on hardship or fees. The enthusiasm expressed in the communication sent to its members in August 2012 celebrating the changes is no doubt genuine. As the email – emphasis in original – (see here NUS email 22 August 2012) puts it:

These financial increases will come on line from September 2013, and will benefit every Scottish student studying a higher education course in a university or college, that could be over 120,000 of our members, every single year. ….Take some time today to celebrate and reflect on what a huge win this is, one that will fundamentally change the lives of so many of our members. … Today is a great day for the student movement in Scotland, so take some time to savour it.

It did also note:

There is always the potential for us to argue to get more money into students pockets, and for more of this money to come in the form of non-repayable grants.

but was silent on the fact that the changes it described were going to mean less of the money coming in the form of grants for the time being.

Thus, giving priority to issues where it could show its work benefited the majority of students, and concentrating on the short-term implications, led to a point where the replacement of many millions of pounds of grant with loan for those at lower incomes – many of whom were already part-way through their course and saw their grant fall by  a thousand pounds or more a year –  did not even merit a  brief, regretful mention in NUS’s  communication with members.   The NUS did provide members with the new figures for  grants and loans which were absent from the government press notice of the same date and not formally published until some time later  (see this article from October that year), although, as the quote above shows, these were described without qualification as representing “financial increases”.

Although NUS Scotland has recently begun to refer more to grants, as here, its statements about these remain relatively cautious, general and aspirational.  It has not argued urgently for any specific  increase, such as  raising overall grant levels enough to mean that poorer students do not have to borrow more than those from better off homes, just to obtain their basic package of support, or simply restoring the most recent round of reductions.

Crucially, NUS Scotland appears to accept that ring-fencing some £900 million a year to fund 100% contribution-free tuition is affordable in the current financial climate, but finding less than £100 million in additional grant in order to avoid basing the system on long-term debt inequality, is not.  In theory, it should be possible for NUS to promote decent levels of grant with equal vigour to free tuition, without jeopardising its commitment to either.  That it has not chosen to do so suggests that it sees the need to make a choice, and the choice it makes is to regard higher debt for the poorer minority of students as preferable to any of the alternatives.

What this means for the debate about student support

NUS Scotland will always be the most important body outside government to involve in any debate about student support, with an important role to play in policy development.  However,  its dynamics as an organisation mean that it will not necessarily assign particular priority to protecting the long-term financial interests of the poorest minority of students, particularly if there is any risk at all that doing so might come into conflict with those of the better-off majority of its members.

The position is complicated by many of its better-off members possibly not feeling as though they come from particularly privileged backgrounds. A household income of £50,000 may put you well into the top half of domestic undergraduate students by income and even further up the scale in the population as whole (EMA data brings this point home): but the son or daughter of one full-time and one part-time classroom teacher may well find that hard to believe.

If there are other bodies outside government which are concerned about the skewing of student loan debt towards poorer students, they may be hesitant about contradicting the NUS position.  It is equally possible however that there are no such bodies in Scotland.  It is still not widely understood that Scotland – uniquely in the UK – has a problem with a regressive distribution of student debt and indeed that many of its poorest students would do better under the sort of  lower-fee/high grant system adopted in Wales.

Many still seem content to believe that free tuition, of itself and automatically, offers the best model for social justice in higher education and even that charging fees would cause the numbers going to university from poorer backgrounds to fall (even though the experience from the rest of the UK simply does not support that: the application rate from disadvantaged students is at record levels in all parts of the UK).  As long as NUS Scotland  itself takes that line (as in this briefing from February 2013 NUS briefing Feb2013: NB the reading of the IFS study quoted is contestable, as discussed here),  other bodies will be likely to keep out of the debate.

That leaves the question of who within the structure can be expected to argue against building the Scottish system on – in effect – taxing more heavily the  future earnings of the minority of higher education students who started from poorer backgrounds.  For the reasons outlined above, it probably is not reasonable to expect NUS Scotland to carry out that role. Opposition parties in Scotland have made the point. However, without a single organised voice from outside the political process – from “civic Scotland” – making the argument for long-term equity, protests in the political arena have tended to have little impact.

In the absence of an effective external lobby group on this point, the responsibility of worrying about long-term distributional equity and unfair effects on the poorer minority might be expected to fall on government.  While the  Scottish Government  presumably understands the effects of what it is doing, its responses so far do not suggest that it regards these as problematic.

So any contrary account of how the Scottish system works continues to be dismissed out of hand because – as one recent below the line poster put it, almost plaintively:

Lucy forgets to add the bit about NUS fully supporting this … And were even involved in developing the policy! It is a fair system!

But it isn’t that simple.  Students are not a homogenous group who do not all come from similar financial backgrounds and have the same financial interests.  The NUS does a heroic job looking for the common ground,  but there are limits to what can be expected of it.  As a result and as recent events demonstrate, there is more to assessing the merits of student support policy than establishing whether it has NUS support. Wider recognition of that would be a further step towards achieving a better quality of debate and, more to the point, fairer outcomes in Scotland.

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