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Nicola Sturgeon at the LSE: why do Scottish First Ministers have such trouble understanding their own student finance system?

March 23, 2015

Speaking at the LSE last week, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, replied to a question about the sustainability of free tuition and in doing so exposed the deep contradiction at the heart of the Scottish government’s approach to student funding.

Her response (verbatim in full at end of this post) reflected the distinctive blindness of senior members of the Scottish Government  to how much debt is now typical for Scottish students from low income backgrounds (see here for her predecessor’s problems with this).

She said [emphasis added]:

I would not have had that opportunity [to go to university] if there had been a policy of tuition fees in place, because even if there had been a policy of paying them back later, the prospect of accumulating that scale of debt would have been enough, I think, to lead me not to go to university.

There is an unusually direct acknowledgement here that fees are a matter of debt.  In Scotland, the government has tended much more often to invoke (implicitly upfront) “ability to pay”  as the problem. She fell back into that later in her answer: nevertheless, the initial shift of emphasis in the rhetoric in front of an audience at an English university, fully familiar with the situation there, is worth noticing.

Far more interesting, though, is the way this leads the FM into difficult territory  in defending the alternative system put in place by the Scottish Government.

Last week, the FM relied heavily on the Scottish Government’s “minimum income” to defend the government’s record in supporting poorer students  (see here).  Her difficulty, given the LSE line above, is that with grants now exceptionally low in Scotland, students have to borrow £5,750 a year (£6,750 for mature students) to achieve this, implying £23-£27,000 of debt over 4 years.  Among those eligible for a grant, 70% of young students borrowed the maximum amount last year (see here).  Most of the rest  limited themselves to the now-minimal grant, with a maximum of £1,750, falling quickly as income rises.

Is £23,000 a scale of debt that the FM believes she would not have found off-putting? That would be at odds with her reflection from 2006 that:

In 1999, average student loan debt was £2,500. Bad enough you might think. But, today, the average debt owed to the government is more than £11,000 and rising.  Why is that a problem? Firstly, because it impedes access to education. For many people in Scotland – particularly those from low income backgrounds – the very idea of incurring debts of that magnitude is a reason not to go to university.

Either the FM doesn’t realise how much debt most low income students in Scotland are now incurring, or she has recalibrated her view of how much debt is off-putting, as her own government has increased the amount students are borrowing.

The FM had a strongly personal take on the issue:

Here’s where the passionate belief comes in. My education and the fact I had that educational opportunity is one of the key reasons that I’m able as working class girl for the west of Scotland to stand here today as First Minister of Scotland and, having had that opportunity, I have no right to take that opportunity away from young people in generations that come after me. So I will defend the principle of access to being on your ability to learn, not on your ability to pay, as long as I’ve got any part to play in politics. It’s that fundamental for me.

Such a personal, passionate statement puts itself almost beyond challenge.  Who would want to argue with the FM that she should take away a chance from others that she has had herself?

But passion should not be a substitute for doing your homework, as Ms Sturgeon, academic achiever and one-time lawyer,  must know.  The assumptions behind this statement can be challenged, and should be.

The FM emphasised her personal perspective on the issue of student funding.  It is therefore fair to look more broadly at what experience she brings to this debate.

Nicola Sturgeon  started university in the late 1980’s, just before loans were introduced in 1990 at a relatively low level,  to top up grant.  From the description of her background, she was probably entitled to a grant, possibly even a full one. That would have been worth something between £4,000 and £5,000 a year at the time.  Her family  were supportive of her continuing into higher education and lived in decent, stable housing, owning their own home by the time she went to university.  They lived close to Irvine, just over half an hour by train from central Glasgow, which has a high concentration of higher education opportunities, including one Russell Group university, to which the FM won a place.

It is relevant to add here that pay data suggests that in Scotland the child of an experienced electrician (her father’s line of work) would now be likely to get no more than £500 in annual grant. Even with a railcard, just the daily commute from Irvine to Glasgow over an academic year would cost more than double that.

Bearing all that in mind:

  • We know the FM benefited from free tuition: is she able to say whether she also received a grant?
  • If so, does she not think that the availability of a certain level of living cost support played some part  in her own decision to enter higher education?
  • If she were a student now, would she take advantage of the “minimum income” (or as much of it as means-testing entitled her to)? If so, why wouldn’t a large debt for living costs put her off, when a debt for fees would? Both have to be paid back in exactly the same way.
  • Perhaps she lived at home (or at least looks back and thinks that she could have done so). If so, does she think everyone has that choice equally?
  • Does she believe that it is alright that working class people who – for whatever reason – do not live at home  while studying will end up incurring large debts?
  • Conversely, would she encourage debt averse young people in Scotland  to live at home, even when that would severely restrict their choice of higher education and mean they were limited to state support of £1,750  – or less – in grant?
  • Exactly how much debt does the FM believe it is reasonable to expect students to incur as the price of going to university?

Only the FM can answer these questions: next time she makes a speech, it would be very helpful if someone could ask them.

There continues to be a large dose of dishonesty in the debate about student debt in Scotland. Large debts are the reality for most low-income Scottish students.  We don’t need a Commission on Widening Access to work out that something doesn’t compute, when the head of the government talks up how debt puts working class people off university, while presiding over a system based on putting most of that group (and indeed that group particularly: see here) heavily into debt.

If Scotland’s First Minister wants to do something for the generations coming after her, a good place to start would be sorting out this contradiction, and ensuring that debt for low-income students from Scotland is at a level she is prepared to openly acknowledge, defend and encourage young people not to be afraid of.  Until then,  the rhetoric about her own background and how it shaped her may be stirring but in this context it’s not just beside the point, it’s positively unhelpful.

LSE response on student funding: full text

Taken from this podcast, at around the half hour mark.

I believe it is sustainable. We have proven what many people thought we wouldn’t prove in the first 7… 8 years of that policy, which is that we can provide free access to university students while also funding world class universities. I always fall into the trap of using this terminology “free”. Of course everybody pays through the taxation system, but access to university education without tuition fees. [sic]

This is a policy I believe in passionately and my belief in it comes from my own experience in life. I grew up in the west of Scotland, grew up in a working class family.   I got to go to university, was the first member of my family to go to university, studied law. I would not have had that opportunity if there had been a policy of tuition fees in place, because even if there had been a policy of paying them back later, the prospect of accumulating that scale of debt would have been enough, I think, to lead me not to go to university. Not because my family wouldn’t have desperately wanted me to go but because it wouldn’t have been a practical proposition.  And here’s where the passionate belief comes in.

My education and the fact I had that educational opportunity is one of the key reasons that I’m able as working class girl for the west of Scotland to stand here today as First Minister of Scotland and, having had that opportunity, I have no right to take that opportunity away from young people in generations that come after me. So I will defend the principle of access to being on your ability to learn, not on your ability to pay, as long as I’ve got any part to play in politics. It’s that fundamental for me.

 

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