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Student support and the Widening Access Commission

April 25, 2015

The Scottish Government’s Widening Access Commission has been announced and its chair appointed, but its remit and timetable are not yet public.

What might the SG do here about student support?

The Scottish Government is under some pressure on its handling of student living cost funding – and it has become clear over time that it  has no good lines to explain or defend  its  decision to cut grants in 2013, and to design into its system  higher levels of student debt at lower incomes.  References to grant cuts are routinely  appearing in the press  as a fact needing no further explanation  (as here) and even the accomplished Nicola Sturgeon struggles to defend her party’s record in government on student funding (as one report of a recent leaders’ debate shows). Senior members of the Scottish Government repeatedly fail to recognise, let alone acknowledge, and much less justify, the effect of their policies.

The SNP is the only major party whose 2015 manifesto is completely silent on the issue of student living costs in Scotland: it does not even discuss what position it might take on Labour’s proposals to increase grant in England. Fees aside,  the debate is arguably running away from them here.

What do governments do when they have a difficult higher education funding issue?  Recent experience elsewhere in the UK suggests they give it to an independent commission which – ideally –  is not due to report until after the next election (Dearing over 1997; Browne over 2010; and Diamond in Wales now).

Responsibility for recent decisions and their effects can then be set aside, questions about the future  put off and manifestos left vague: the commission is looking at it and it would be wrong to pre-empt their findings or appear to influence their deliberations.

Perhaps it will soon be Scotland’s turn to try out this gambit.

Scotland’s not had a review of student funding for a long time and it would, in fairness, be odd to have an access commission which didn’t look at all at that issue.  Equally, though, any commission would not presumably be allowed to look at the access case for investing so much of the available funding in 100% tuition fee support regardless of family income, rather than other things (whether grants or access and support programmes).

There’s a further difficulty with sweeping the debate about grant into the access commission.

It would almost certainly be hard to prove that students are put off by the higher debt due to Scotland’s minimal use of grant, though evidence that a substantial minority  of low income students in Scotland seek to get by just on their very low grant should  ring alarm bells.  There is also some research into the impact of switching some support from loan to grant in England in 2004 which suggests that improved participation rates. But pinning down an unarguable, precise relationship between grant and access could still be difficult.

The  most basic and unarguable problem with the current low levels of Scottish grant (and relatively low repayment threshold) is not that it’s contributing to Scotland’s average record on improving access, but that it is stacking up a long-term regressive financial impact within the graduate population, whereby people who started poorer will see more of their future earnings taken by the state than those who started from better-off backgrounds, perpetuating inherited differences in wealth down the generations.

Of course it would make sense for the commission to look at funding – but that shouldn’t prevent the SG  being expected to give a better account than it yet has of the decisions it has already made and which have now affected three years’ worth of students – all those in the system from 2013-14 onwards, and which will probably at least a fourth cohort, in 2016-17. It could be argued that the low priority the SG has given grants over a longer period – rates were frozen from 2009 – has affected many more.

Unless the access commission is specifically asked to worry not only about who gets into higher education in the first place but also how the long-term costs associated with participation are distributed, it might conclude that grant is less of a priority for further investment than other activities (raising attainment in poorly performing schools, for example).  That wouldn’t though be a vindication of  the Scottish government’s  decision to design a system of student funding which reinforces long-term financial inequalities across the generations or an argument for leaving our exceptionally low system of grant untouched.

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