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Ability to “succeed” or to “learn”?

October 28, 2014

Absolutely central to the Scottish Government’s explanation and defence of its approach to student funding is that it based on “ability to learn, not ability to pay”.  These exact words are used repeatedly, indeed almost inevitably, by the government whenever any aspect of student funding is being discussed and have been now for some years.

So when the latest edition of the annual statistics on student support, produced by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland,  states in its opening paragraphs that:

The main work of the Agency is to assess and pay student financial support in line with the Scottish Government policy of fair access to Higher Education based upon ability to succeed [emphasis added] rather than ability to pay.

the change in wording stands out and must surely be deliberate.

How does ability to succeed differ from ability to learn?   There is an implication that ability to learn by itself is not enough: the learning must be expected to be “successful”. Indeed, in many ways this is a truer statement of the situation.  Presumably plenty of people who are refused a university place and therefore access to government funding still have the ability to learn, including in some level and type of HE.  But they have been deemed either too unlikely to succeed on the particular course(s) to which they have applied or at least less likely than other applicants.

At first sight, it’s a small point.  But “ability to learn” is so central to the government line, that it’s impossible not to wonder whether this shift in wording signals a localised desire for a different formulation, or suggests some broader debate within government or with those in HE about whether the system really can be described accurately as being based on ability to learn.

Given that, as this earlier post argues, the “ability to pay” half of the line is already strongly open to question,  any debate about the other half would be an interesting proposition.

The accompanying Scottish Government  news release , it should be said, sticks with ability to learn.





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