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“Ability to pay”: the rhetoric gets a boost

August 31, 2014

This post argued that there was evidence that the Scottish Government’s frequent use of the phrase “ability to learn, not ability to pay” to identify what is distinctive about the Scottish system was leaving people with the false impression that students elsewhere in the UK have, in effect, to scrape their fee money together with no state help, before they can get through the door of a university.  In passing, that impression is reflected in a recent household leaflet associated with the referendum campaign: the leaflet is not available on-line, but draws largely on the text of this website.

Although the implication of the phrase has been clear, the Scottish Government has stopped short of saying in terms that entry to higher education in other UK jurisdictions relies on “ability to pay”.

However, this has now changed.  On BBC Scotland on 19 August, the Cabinet Secretary is reported to have said (emphasis added):

Scotland is the only country in the UK to ensure young people, our workforce of the future, can go to university based on ability, not the ability to pay.

Yet students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Wales can all take out a government student loan for the full cost of their fees.  Yes, they will have to pay the money back, if they earn enough later, so  “willingness to borrow” is an issue – but “ability to pay” implies the ability to … well, pay in the first place.  All across the UK the state takes care of that.  Indeed that’s why for students in England there is such concern about the long-term viability of the new arrangements, as the Scottish Government ministers have been known to point out.

Further, the most recent UCAS statistics show Scotland with the slowest growth since 2010 in the “entry rate” for students from “POLAR2 Quintile 1”, the group UCAS uses as an indicator of progress in widening access.  To anyone following the numbers, that would by itself be a strong indication that “ability to pay” is not an issue in the other parts of the UK, compared to Scotland.

Indeed, ironically, where “ability to pay” does come in – in the amount of upfront help the state offers towards living costs to low/middle income families –  Scotland does worse for students living away from home (who face the highest costs) than one or other, and sometimes both, of England and Wales, particularly for those with incomes between £33,000 and around £50,000. More on that is included at page 12 onwards here.

Happily for the Cabinet Secretary, his interviewer didn’t appear to be alert to any of this.  Nor, as the previous post argued, does it seem likely it will be challenged after the event by anyone in Scotland with standing in the system.

Perhaps the Welsh Assembly Government may catch it on iPlayer and feel moved to write and point out how its students have full non-means-tested access to government loans for the first £3,685 of their fees and receive grant for all the rest.  It could add that its living cost support package for those away from home is more generous for the bottom two-thirds or so of the income distribution than Scotland’s, except for a group  with incomes between around £29,000 and £32,999.  It might add that its student grant at low incomes is several times more generous, its total debt levels lower for many graduates from the poorest homes and how on the latest UCAS figures,since  it has seen a much higher rise in the entry rate for the “POLAR2 Quintile 1” group (37% versus Scotland’s 12%).

On experience to date, that seems marginally more likely than anyone with any kind of formal role in higher education, the media or politics in Scotland feeling the urge to contradict the Cabinet Secretary on this point.

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