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Still no announcement of 2015-16 student support rates in Scotland (not an April fool)

April 1, 2015

In what appears to be a radical experiment in testing how far students really need advance information on their financial entitlements, the Scottish government has still to announce its student support rates for the coming academic year.  These have traditionally been made available in the autumn.

According to the banner on the SAAS website as at today, applications for 2015-16 will open “in early April”.  On the agency’s Facebook page, a message dated 30 March says mid-April.

Either way, students applying at that point will be doing so having had access to the relevant information for just a couple of weeks, at most. Indeed, almost as soon as the information is available, students are likely to be met with messages to get their funding application in early: that campaign started in late (or possibly mid-, it depends on your definitions) April last year.

By this time last year, in line with previous years, details of the rates for the year ahead had been available for five months, a printed  guide had been circulation for a while and a video had been available for viewing with S5 and S6 pupils – who are now of course deep into exam preparation.

This year, the assumption seems to be that none of this advance information is necessary.

The laissez-faire attitude to public information on display here sits at odds with the insistence that policy on student finance affects student decision making, as argued recently by the First Minister:

our minimum income guarantee provides students from the poorest households with £7,500 of living-costs support every year. That support has helped to ensure that record numbers of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas are being accepted to university.

As Scottish Ministers have lately emphasised, Scotland has some way to go in widening access to HE.  Research consistently shows that it is those from the poorest backgrounds who will tend to be most concerned about their finances.  We will probably never be able to tell if there are already  individuals who have drifted away from deciding to apply, because they couldn’t get information on what would be on offer for living costs.  It is much more likely to be true however that there are numbers of people feeling stressed about the lack of information and that those people largely come from poorer backgrounds.  If actions speak louder than words, then delaying this announcement shows very little regard for exactly the sort of students who are supposed to be at the heart of government policy.

Perhaps the word has gone out quietly round the system that nothing will be changing? That outcome would be the obvious inference from the budget figures (see here), but it’s no substitute for putting the information out there in a form that everyone can access – and subject to scrutiny.  Indeed, if the government has known for a while that nothing is changing, but has not wanted to say so,  it would be a striking (and  unimpressive) case of putting presentational considerations ahead of the practical interests of students and their families.

The government must also be assuming that a delay in putting out the information will not delay students in submitting applications.  In recent years, SAAS has worked hard to avoid this, because of the problems late applications can cause later in the summer and the autumn.  The timing of the announcement may well not affect how quickly applications are submitted – but this seems an unnecessarily high-risk way of testing that.

Perhaps the government is also assuming that many students do not in practice engage much with the detail of their funding and just tick the  boxes on the  form for “The highest amount available to me” without thinking much about the choice they are making.  If so,  should it  be taking advantage of that  – or instead be encouraging students to take informed control of their finances?

A particularly surprising dimension to this is the lack of any public agitation from those representing the interests of students and potential students in “civic Scotland”, whether student bodies, in schools or other advisers, who all seem to be completely relaxed that students, and would-be students, are still flying blind on their financial entitlements with only a few months to go before the start of term.  The absolute silence on this is pretty remarkable.

After the cat-and-mouse approach to announcing student funding rates in Scotland in the past two years, this year’s experiment – putting off making them public at all for as long as possible – is a further innovation.  But it’s not a  good one, if we are serious either about widening access or  encouraging young people to be actively engaged citizens and financially responsible adults, rather than relatively passive consumers of whatever the government eventually happens to put their way.

Footnote

In other parts of the UK,  students have known for several months what student support they can apply for (in the case of English students, they have known for over a year, but theirs was an exceptionally early announcement).

As an ironic aside, a Scottish student applying to a university in the Netherlands under the Scottish government’s  EU “portability pilot” now potentially knows slightly more about their forward entitlements than a student planning to study in Scotland.  Details of  the Netherlands student support arrangements for 2015-16 here: non-Dutch nationals can claim some grant if they work a minimum number  of hours during term.

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