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Living costs #2: why student grant is a rural policy issue

October 27, 2014

This post adds to this general discussion of why it’s problematic to suggest that support for living costs is less of an issue than for fees.

It argues that there is strong evidence that students from low-income families from rural areas are likely to pay a particularly high long-term price as a result of the shift away from grants in Scotland, because they are significantly more likely to have to live away from home, and therefore now to have to borrow heavily.

What we know

Although SAAS does not publish figures on how likely students are to live at home or away according to income or where they come from, the most recent census data can help here.

The census asked whether a household member was living away during term time for full-time study.  The answers include school and FE students, as well as those in HE.  They are however disaggregated by the age of the student,  the occupation of the “household reference person” and council area. So it’s possible to look only at those 18 and over,  in order to capture the general pattern for post-school study, both by geography and background.  The resulting comparative figures are shown in the table at the end.

Socio-economic status

At national level and within local areas, there is a strong relationship between socio-economic status and living away.  On average,  families in the top third by socio-economic status are more than five times as likely as families in the bottom third to have a member living away from home to study full-time.

That’s to be expected, given that participation in post-compulsory education in general rises with socio-economic status.   It is also probable that living away from home becomes more common as socio-economic status rises, although these figures do not allow the relative contribution of that to be quantified.

The rural/urban split

More relevant for grant policy however is the even more striking divide between rural Scotland and urban Scotland.

Councils with above-average away from home figures are largely rural, and those below the average predominantly urban, and found particularly in west-central Scotland.

In particular,  the most remote rural councils, ie those with islands, produce the highest figures for students living away. So households in Orkney are nearly three times as likely to have someone living away, as in Scotland as a whole, with Shetland and Eilean Siar not far behind.  Argyll and Bute and Highland are both around twice as likely as average. Scottish Borders, Moray,  Stirling, Dumfries and Galloway and Perth and Kinross are all at more than one and a half times the average.

By contrast, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire are a quarter as likely as on average, with Glasgow only one-third as likely. Overall, a household in the islands is nine times more likely than one in Glasgow to include a full-time student living away from home.

There are outliers: Edinburgh is the only city to be above average, significantly so.  It is also one of the most socio-economically advantaged areas. South Lanarkshire is well below average, despite covering a significant rural area: but it also contains large, densely urban population centres within the central belt.

There is some correlation with socio-economics evident here, but it is far from the whole story: the graph here shows that the relationship is far from straightforward Away from home census data graph (a note at the end of this post provides more explanation of this graph).

Further, the rural/urban divide repeats strongly within socio-economic groups.  So a professional/managerial household in the Highlands and Islands is four to five times more likely to have an away from home student than a similar household in Glasgow.

The rural/urban divide is greatest among the poorest

The finding with the most significant implications for grant policy is that rurality has its strongest effect  as occupational status reduces.  Among households in the bottom third by socio-economic status those in the Highlands and Islands are between nine and sixteen times more likely than similar households in Glasgow to have an away from home student.

In fact such is the impact of rurality that the most disadvantaged households in the Islands are one and a half to two times more likely to have an over-18 studying away from home than professional/managerial ones in Glasgow. 

The most disadvantaged households in Argyll and Bute and Highland are also marginally more likely to have an away from home student than professional/managerial ones in Glasgow.

Conclusion: to avoid debt don’t be poor,  but particularly don’t be rural and poor

The impact of rurality should hardly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Scottish policy and politics, or even just geography. However, the particularly sharp difference between the urban, especially urban west/central, and rural Scotland in the groups most likely to be entitled to grant  is still unexpected.

It brings home how poorer students from rural Scotland are likely to have been unusually badly hit by the decision to shift living cost support away from grant and towards loans, in terms of their levels of long-term debt, because – predictably – they have less chance of being able to live at home.

Many low-income students in more urban areas will also have been affected by the shift away from grants: as these previous posts both argue, living at home, or even living at home for next-to-nothing, will not be an option for many of them, either: see here and here. In  absolute numbers of students affected, the impact is indeed likely to be greatest in urban Scotland. But in general, those at lower incomes in more urban areas will tend to have more scope to save on their living costs.

All this leads to the conclusion that, contrary to what might have been expected, with complete freedom to design the detail of its own student support system, Scotland has managed to come up with something which is not only regressive in its treatment of those from low-income homes, but also peculiarly unsympathetic to its own distinctive geography.



This table shows how the figures for households with at least one full-time student living away from home over the age of 18 compare by council area, relative to the total number of households: council areas are listed in descending order.  All figures are provided relative to the Scottish average, which here equals 1.

For each entry, a single average is shown, and also the figures by the socio-economic classification of the “household reference person”.  The original census statistics are supplied for 8 separate groups (plus households headed by full-time students, which have been ignored for this purpose).  Here the figures are grouped into three bands which each contain roughly one-third of  households, ie National Statistics classifications:

1 and 2:   Higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations; Lower managerial, administrative and professional occupations

3, 4 and 5:   Intermediate occupations;  Small employers and own account workers; Lower supervisory and technical occupations

6,7 and 8:  Semi-routine occupations; Routine occupations; Never worked and long-term unemployed

 Scottish average = 1

18+ away from home
in f/t education (all) By socio-economic classification
1 to 2 3 to 5 6 to 8
Orkney Islands 2.91 4.21 3.06 1.45
Eilean Siar 2.66 4.05 2.57 1.36
Shetland Islands 2.63 3.53 2.61 1.65
Argyll & Bute 2.07 3.15 2.04 0.88
Highland 1.98 3.07 1.90 0.94
Stirling 1.79 2.75 1.61 0.38
Perth & Kinross 1.77 2.84 1.47 0.58
Scottish Borders 1.70 2.66 1.59 0.76
Dumfries & Galloway 1.69 3.03 1.81 0.64
Moray 1.60 2.55 1.53 0.74
City of Edinburgh 1.50 2.36 1.12 0.38
Aberdeenshire 1.46 2.17 1.22 0.51
South Ayrshire 1.41 2.55 1.16 0.36
East Lothian 1.38 2.25 1.14 0.42
Clackmannanshire 1.20 2.32 1.12 0.36
Fife 1.17 2.16 0.94 0.41
Angus 1.12 1.82 1.08 0.37
East Dunbartonshire 1.10 1.68 0.66 0.23
East Renfrewshire 1.02 1.36 0.86 0.27
All Scotland 1.00 1.77 0.88 0.32
Aberdeen City 0.98 1.71 0.61 0.37
West Lothian 0.71 1.27 0.60 0.23
Midlothian 0.71 1.37 0.51 0.22
North Ayrshire 0.64 1.36 0.58 0.21
Dundee City 0.62 1.37 0.44 0.20
Inverclyde 0.61 1.24 0.55 0.15
East Ayrshire 0.60 1.18 0.56 0.22
Falkirk 0.55 1.04 0.47 0.14
South Lanarkshire 0.53 0.96 0.44 0.15
Renfrewshire 0.48 0.89 0.38 0.12
Glasgow City 0.34 0.83 0.28 0.11
North Lanarkshire 0.26 0.52 0.22 0.10
West Dunbartonshire 0.25 0.50 0.25 0.10


The figure used for all households in an area, in aggregate and within each socio-economic classification, is the combined figure for couples with one or more dependent children and lone parents, to remove any effect due to differences in the proportion of childless households between council areas.

For manageability in undertaking the calculations, the figures for away from home students will exclude cases where households have students over and under 18 away from home.  The numbers reported in that category are proportionately very small across Scotland and the  effect of their exclusion on the comparisons will be de minimis.

The same pattern of declining away from home numbers as socio-economic classification falls, and the same rural/urban effect, is evident in the figures, before they are grouped.

The base raw data extracted from the census is shown in detail here before and after grouping into bands.  Away from home census data spreadsheet

The limited correlation between away from home figures and socio-economic composition of council areas is illustrated by the graph linked in the text above by plotting the away from home ratio against the ratio of households in groups 1and 2 and in groups 6, 7 and 8.  While there is clearly some relationship, authorities with very similar socio-economic profiles are found at either end of the graph.





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