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Why the comparison with English fees is preferred to the one with Welsh grants

October 5, 2014

This site has repeatedly identified that the Scottish Government is very interested in comparisons with (a) fees and (b) England, but generally avoids comparisons to do with grants or other parts of the UK, and questions about the distribution of resources between students in Scotland.

As if to prove the point, Stewart Maxwell MSP, Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee (and a governing party backbench member), has just issued this press release.  He commissioned the Scottish Parliament Research and Information Centre (SPICe) to calculate how much students in Scotland would have been charged if the same fee regime had been introduced here as in England, at the same pace. It has been reported in  The Sunday Herald, The Record and Scotland on Sunday, at minimum.  So in media terms, this is a clear result (although looking at below the line comments, some readers have used the sums to raise questions about the cost of current policy, which probably was not the intended reaction).

SPICe reckons that if Scotland had copied England and ended up with what it calculates as a de facto fee of  just under £8,000, Scottish domiciled students would by now have had to pay some £1 billion in fees.  Mr Maxwell also asked how much English students have paid: SPICe reckons around £14bn.  There are of course a lot more students in England, so what purpose a comparison of headline figures here serves is unclear: however, the press release makes much of it.  “Ability to learn, not ability to pay” (see here for the problem with this line) also gets its obligatory airing.

Despite convening the relevant Scottish Parliament Committee, Mr Maxwell demonstrates the difficulty often found in Scotland of distinguishing between policy in England and that in Wales or Northern Ireland, both of which have rejected £9,000 fees and still limit fee payments to  below £4,000, stating, “as tuition fees spiral out of control in the rest of the UK [emphasis added]…”.  The increasingly hard-to-show link between free tuition and wider access is also hinted at, with a reference to it “opening the doors of opportunity to young people across Scotland.”

Spiraling figures are of course not unknown in Scotland over the past three years, with the most recent figures showing  a sharp increase in student loan borrowing here (the fastest percentage rise in the UK) over the two years to 2013-14.  However, the Education and Culture Committee under Mr Maxwell has chosen not to investigate this issue.

It is not clear why Mr Maxwell is so concerned that there is a risk of £9,000 fees being introduced in Scotland, given no-one is on record as arguing for these here, they have been rejected in the other devolved administrations and we are often told that Scotland thinks differently about higher education than England.  So it would be interesting to know why Scotland is regarded as being more likely to follow the precedent set in England than Wales or Northern Ireland, should fees or any other form of student contribution ever be back on the agenda here.

However, while we are comparing extreme cases, an equally interesting question would be to ask, what have Scottish students lost, as a result of the Scottish Government’s decision to cut student grants from 2013-14,  including for those mid-course, and not instead adopt the highest grant rates used in the UK, which apply in Wales?

Unlike the Convenor, this site cannot commission SPICe.  However, using data on the distribution of students by income provided (in PQ answers and public documents) by the Scottish Government, it is possible to estimate that if the Welsh grant system had applied here for all students, annual spend on means-tested grants since 2012-13 would have been around £225m, or £675m over three years (ignoring any growth in total student numbers).  In practice, it was around £90m in 2012-13, and is likely to have fallen to somewhere round £60-£65m a year (again, before taking account of any growth in numbers) since then.  That suggests an actual three year spend in Scotland on means-tested grants of around £215 million.  So while we’re in the business of selective comparisons, low-income Scottish students appear to have lost some £460 million in non-repayable grant over the period examined by Mr Maxwell, due to the Scottish Government’s decision to cut grants for these students, rather than follow the example set in Wales.

SPICe could of course do these calculations more accurately.  Perhaps someone in the Parliament could ask them?

 

Footnote

The only comparisons which shed full light on the financial effects on students of different systems are those which look at both the government-set factors affecting student borrowing (fees and grants) alongside overall spending power, and at the distributional effects of policy on these things across the income range.  See here.

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