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How important is it to give accurate information to parliamentary committees in Scotland?

February 9, 2015

The surprising answer to the question above turns out to be, perhaps not very.

In the autumn of 2012, the Education and Culture Committee of the Scottish Parliament published its report on the Scottish government’s budget proposals for 2013-14.

The Committee reproduced in its report a table provided by the Scottish Government in which the government had estimated the numbers expected to claim grant and loan at particular levels under the proposed new system. The table is at the foot of this post.

An interesting thing about this table was that it appeared to estimate that some 42,000 students would be claiming Young Student Bursary in 2013-14.  Given only 33,140 were claiming it in 2012-13, that seemed surprisingly high, but with changes in the rules for repeat  years and the rolling into YSB of younger claimants from other schemes, perhaps the government knew something that was not apparent from the previous year’s figures.  The numbers implied spending on YSB of £55.017 m.

(Another interesting thing about this table was that it gave income thresholds which were different from those already published elsewhere: but that’s a minor point by comparison.)

We now know the actual number of YSB claimants for 2013-14, was 33,155, an increase of 15 (people, not per cent). Spending on YSB was £40.6 m.  The claimants and implied spend for Independent Student Bursary was, by comparison, much closer to the original estimate: see below.

The table provided to the Parliament  was, in other words, way out, over-estimating the number who would benefit from YSB by 26% and implying spend  36% higher than actually occurred.  As far as I can tell, no explanation for this has been volunteered, or sought.

Exactly where the problem lies in the figures we cannot tell, because the statistics published last October do not – again surprisingly – include equivalently detailed data on the numbers benefitting from loan and grant at each of the different rates.

This means it is also not possible to test the  statement made at the time that “the Scottish Government expects the minimum income guarantee to benefit 40,668 students next year”, because the number of young students in receipt of the maximum YSB has not been separately identified. That’s also surprising.

Does any of this matter?  I’d say so, but it remains to be seen whether that view is at all widely shared.  Whether we will ever have the detailed figures for  comparison and an explanation for why the estimate provided to the Committee was so different from what actually happened is equally unclear.

 

Extract from the committee’s budget report, para 108:

“The Scottish Government provided the following table, showing estimates in take-up of the various levels of student support in 2013-14—

Support type Household income group Number of expected students Bursary
(£)
Loan
(£)
Total support
(£)
Young Students Less than £17,000 24,047 1,750 5,500 7,250
£17,001 – £23,000 [sic: in practice, £17,000 – £23,999] 7,982 1,000 5,500 6,500
£23,001 – £32,000 [sic:in practice, £24,000 – £33,999] 9,906 500 5,500 6,000
£32,001+[sic: in practice, £34,000+] 56,835 0 4,500 4,500
Total Young Students 98,770
Independent Students Less than £18,000 [sic: in practice, £17,000] 16,621 750 6,500 7,250
£18,001 – £29,000 [sic: in practice, £17,000 – £23,999] 1,635 0 6,500 6,500
£29,001 – £32,000 [sic: in practice, £24,000 – £33,999] 290 0 6,000 6,000
£32,001+ [sic: in practice, £34,000+] 2,172 0 4,500 4,500
Total Independent 20,718
Total 119,488      

 

Notes:

The implied total of YSB claimants is all those in the three lowest income categories i.e. 41,935.

The implied total YSB spending is £55.017 million i.e. the grant rate multiplied by the expected number in each of the first three lines.

The total number of ISB claimants estimated is shown in the first line only of that section, i.e. 16,621, and the  implied total spend is that figure multiplied by £750, i.e. £12.466m.  These estimates were pretty accurate: the final figures were 17,405 (+1%) and £12.3million (-1%).  Puzzlingly, though, the actual figures for 2013-14 imply an average payment of £707 for a grant with a flat-rate value of £750, meaning spending is some £0.7 million less than the number of claimants alone would imply. It would be interesting to know how that works.

The total number of students benefiting from the “minimum income guarantee” was the total number expected to receive the highest possible grant, either YSB or ISB, i.e. 24,047 plus 16,621.

The total number of students potentially able to claim grant of living cost loan (in practice, Scottish domiciled full-time undergraduate students) was 120, 565, 1% higher than the estimate, again a reasonable degree of accuracy for this sort of exercise.

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