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Living costs #1: only optional for some

October 27, 2014
An opening statistic:
In 2012-13, 56% of Scottish-domiciled full-time undergraduate students supported by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland lived away from the parental home. Half (50%) of young Scottish-domiciled full-time undergraduate students lived away from the parental home. Over four-fifths (83%) of independent Scottish-domiciled full-time undergraduate students lived away from the parental home.
(Written PQ S4W-19055, answered in the Scottish Parliament on 17 January 2014)

These figures cover all full-time students including those studying HE in their local FE college, who are more likely to study locally and live at home.  It can be safely predicted  that the figures for those studying for longer at degree level are higher.

Tuition fees compulsory. living costs optional? The problem with just-live-with-your-parents

One of the most basic, and problematic, assumptions underlying the way student funding is discussed in Scotland is rarely stated in terms. This is that while fees create an unavoidable cost to students, living costs (and so any associated debt) are more avoidable, principally because students can choose to live at home with their parents. Hence debt for living costs simply shouldn’t be discussed as an equivalent  issue to debt for fees.

Of course it’s true that living costs are far from uniform across the student population.  Some students are able to bring down their living costs substantially by living with their parents,  other relatives or at least in a property their parents have bought.

But, as the statistics show, not all and not even most. If:

  • your family urgently needs you to move out (to make room for growing younger siblings, perhaps)
  • your family home  is a place you are desperate to get out of (maybe due to poor relationships or even abuse)
  • your family home  is a hard place to study (cramped for space, and maybe with no internet access: see this post on a recent report on poverty and education)
  • you are a care leaver
  • you live in a remote rural area, or just beyond practical commuting distance of any higher education provider
  • you have a disability which means that it helps very much, or is only practical, to live as close as possible to where you study
  • you are mature student

how would you feel about being told you can just live with your parents?

Or perhaps you could stay at home and save a bit on rent, but your family is on a low income and you are not able or willing to live there without making a large contribution to the bills, well beyond what a grant of £1750, £1000 or £500 would cover, especially after study, travel and other personal costs?   How would you feel about being told your family could fund your housing costs, food and other bills?

At this point the “living at home” assumption looks suspiciously like the perspective of the urban-not-poor-school-leaver (or more realistically perhaps, their parents) and even then just the ones with good-enough family relationships.

Choosing to live away

What about those who might have some higher education provision within range, but not at the level they want, so HNC/D but not degree?  Can we agree that it’s reasonable for them to move somewhere which lets them study to degree level?  If the Scottish Government, or anyone else engaged in the debate, thinks not, they really need to say so publicly.

What about those who can find a degree course within range, but not in a subject they really want to do? Can we agree that it’s reasonable for them to move to study something to which they are more committed?  Some people may think that’s an indulgence: again, if they are influential in this policy area, they should come out and say so. Should, say, all our dentists come from the Aberdeen, Glasgow and Dundee travel-to-work area?

Then there are those who can find a nearby degree course in their preferred subject, but much prefer what’s on offer in another place, for the content of the course, other aspects of the institution, the desire to live in a particular, or even any,  different place, or just a general sense that they want to be more independent.

This may be the case where people are most willing to challenge openly what is sometimes unflatteringly called the “boarding school model”, arguing that in these cases the state is being asked to subsidise an unnecessarily expensive approach, taken up mainly by the better-off.

Over fifty years ago, a UK-wide investigation of student support noted that the Scottish approach to student support was unusual in tending to discourage study away from home when a course was available in the subject which could be studied from home.  There’s a particularly strong tradition of living at home for at least some years of the course in Scotland, and probably particularly the west of Scotland.

So presumably we could debate how much sympathy we should feel for those who choose to increase their costs by going further than is strictly necessary to get a degree in the subject they want.    But it would be a big departure in policy to return to the pre-1962 ethos of openly discouraging study away from home and – critically – no-one defending the current Scottish system has had the courage to come out and say in terms that this is what they want or explained how the students most dependent on the state would not in practice end up more restricted than ones whose parents were willing to fund their greater choice.

 So, are living costs really less compulsory than fees?

It depends who  you are and what you want to do.

For younger students whose families can accommodate them with little or no charge, who can study something they want near their parents’ home and who either don’t wish to leave their familiar surroundings or at least feel no great urge to go too far, then, yes.

For everyone else, no.  And this group makes up the majority of the students we fund.


Footnote: other arguments to watch out for

Sometimes it’s argued that people can avoid or at least reduce living cost loans by part-time work.  That confuses income with expenditure.  Taking a part-time job doesn’t reduce your rent, it only reduces what you need to borrow to cover it. Income from part-time work  is set against what a student needs towards all costs they face, whether living costs or tuition.

That leads to the argument that the important difference is that living costs already exist, but charging for tuition would create a whole new cost in the system. That’s clearly true from the current perspective of students. But just like rent etc, the cost of tuition is already a real cost, it is simply one that is already subsidised by the state.  The state could already also be similarly paying for  the cost of all students’ accommodation and providing them with subsidised food (the latter’s not so far-fetched – see the continental mensa/student canteen system).  That it does not do so here is a matter of policy choice and prioritisation, dictated largely  by history and, these days, which bits of the welfare state legacy are revered (free tuition) and which are not (full grants, at least lower incomes).   Tuition fee costs only look “extra” compared to costs such as rent and food because of where we start from. Teaching, accommodation, food, books and travel are all real costs incurred by students somewhere along the way: the only question is why it is regarded as so much more important to provide a state cash subsidy for the first of these than for any of the others.




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