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EU research: Scotland now has lowest max grant in western Europe

October 21, 2014

EURYDICE, an arm of the European Commission, has just published a round-up of student support and fee systems across the EU, EFTA and the EEA – in effect all of Europe, plus Turkey (but excluding Russia).  It is available here (PDF under National Student Fee and Support Systems in European Higher Education 2014/15).  This is the best available detailed, comparative, up-to-date source on student funding in Europe.

The report confirms that Iceland remains unique in having a wholly loan-based system of living cost support. More unexpectedly, it shows that, Iceland aside, Scotland now offers the lowest the maximum value of student grant in western Europe: see Figure 5.  This is based on the higher £1750 for young students, rather than the £750 for mature ones.  To find lower levels of grant, we need to look at most (but not all) of Eastern Europe, Greece and Turkey.  Among western European countries, Luxembourg and German-speaking Belgium are also unusual in having a maximum worth less than EU3000: but in both cases the value is still higher than Scotland’s.

Of course, Scottish students can top up their grant with loan, as can students in quite a number of other countries (figure 6). However, this report brings out how exceptionally limited is the value of the non-repayable element support available in Scotland, in European terms.

This finding comes more or less in parallel with the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s recommendation that the Scottish Government review its support for disadvantaged students in the wake of last year’s grant cuts and the consequent increased borrowing now expected at low incomes.

A few other immediate observations include that:

  • England (56%), Wales (68%) and Northern Ireland (61%) provide grant to over half their undergraduates, all relatively high percentages within Europe as a whole.
  • The general map suggests Scotland is also at 50%+ receiving grant, although figures from SAAS suggest it should be lower,  around 45%. The detailed report provided for Scotland unusually does not provide a specific figure for the proportion receiving a grant, but only for those receiving a grant and/or loan (69%). Oddly, and almost certainly in a reversal of the true position,  the associated EU press notice singles out Scotland as the one country within the UK which provides 50%+ of its students with grants.
  • otherwise, only in Scandinavia and the Netherlands are over 50% of students recorded as receiving some grant.
  • only Denmark and Finland manage a combination of no fee/high grant/high proportion (100% in each case) receiving grant
  • the use of student loans is now relatively common across Europe, particularly northern Europe, though income-contingent repayment is much less common than systems more like the old “mortgage style” fixed repayments system abandoned in the UK in 1998.
  • Germany (lately in the news for ending tuition fees) only provides any help with living costs to 25% of its students, though the total value is relatively high.
  • fees are widely charged across Europe, but those in England (and for border crossers into the three devolved nations)  remain exceptionally high.
  • According to the report (and even more clearly the news release) the UK is unique in allowing students to defer the impact of fees until after they begin earning, and to repay in relation to their earnings.

There is much more that can be derived from this report, including information on the use of tax allowances and child benefit.  It is is an immensely useful source, even if it is inevitably limited in how strictly comparable the information provided can be or how detailed: for example, Norway is shown as fee-free, although 15% of its students are in relatively high-fee private higher education institutions. The report gives no sense of how tightly access to the maximum is regulated: it might be interesting to model the support available to students in various countries at various levels of income, but that would take resources beyond those available to this author.

This report reinforces the analysis in various previous posts in this site, that single parameter comparisons, most commonly of fees, provide a very partial picture of how well higher education systems support their students.  Even looking at student support systems in the round, but in isolation from other things, still gives a limited picture. Finland, for example,  may have low fees and high grants and grant take-up, but it also has relatively low graduation rates, as measured by the OECD: a lower proportion of the population is expected to successfully complete a degree, compared to the OECD average.

As Eurydice notes:

Issues regarding the interaction of student fees and support are complex and therefore difficult to compare accurately at European level. These national diagrams and information sheets attempt to
outline the main elements of national systems in a way that enables a reader to understand reality
quickly and easily, and also allows accurate comparison to be made with other countries.
There are, however, many dimensions to be considered, and the information should be read carefully.
Where fees exist, are they paid by all or by some students? If some, what are the criteria that
determine which students pay and which do not? Are the fees paid ‘up front’ upon enrolment or only
after graduation?
Similar questions should be asked with regard to student support. Which students, or which families,
are able to access public financial support in the form of grants, loans or tax relief? What conditions
and criteria apply, and how much support is provided?


Comparing grants in isolation is open to the same criticism as doing so with fees.  But for as long as political and media debate are dominated by discussion of fee levels, it is surely fair enough to point out how different the picture looks  when viewed from another angle.


Update: a further article on this topic was published in The Herald on 25 October: see here.



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