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Constance’s first statement on student support: a change of tone and a hint?

April 28, 2015

On 27 April, the new Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Angela Constance MSP,  made what is (as far as I can tell)  her first official statement on student living cost support in higher education  since her appointment last year. Answering a written PQ asking when the 2015-16 student support rates would be published, she said (S4W-25134 here):

The 2015-16 funding guide, which includes details of student support rates, became available on the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) website on 2 April 2015. The SAAS events team has distributed the guide at events since 26 March 2015.

The Scottish Government is committed to free tuition and providing financial support for students’ living costs. Ministers will always take the opportunity (including in-year) to further improve student support when that is affordable.

A change of tone

There’s a clear change of tone from her predecessor, whose response to any question on student support could usually be relied on to (a) make comparisons with England and  (b) invoke the questionable concept of “best in the UK”.  This is a much more straightforward approach to answering questions, which should be welcomed. It’s interesting for several further reasons. First:

The Scottish Government is committed to … providing financial support for students’ living costs.

I should hope so. So has been every major party  in the UK for over 50 years.  It’s such a basic statement it seems almost odd to bother making it.  Indeed, doing so brings home how weak the Scottish government’s record is on living costs and how little they can actually claim, stripped of the distracting cross-border comparisons on fees and hard-to-substantiate comparative claims used previously.

The current SG does have one claim it could have straightforwardly made, that it has substantially increased the value of living cost support.  But it has done so only by injecting large amounts of Barnett-consequential loan into the system, while withdrawing grant – and in doing so, for those living away from home, who are the majority of students and most in need of help, the SG has still only raised Scottish levels of support up to something comparable with England or Wales (and often still compares unfavourably with one or both of those, especially for those at middle incomes away from home, for whom Scottish living cost support  is still pretty poor).  Perhaps the new minister is uneasy about claiming much here: that would be to her credit.

A hint?

Ministers will always take the opportunity (including in-year) to further improve student support when that is affordable. (emphasis added)

This is interesting, also.  There’s no obvious reason to include the highlighted section.  Indeed, it would be very unusual (possibly unprecedented?)  to introduce a new grant or increase support rates for higher education mid-year.  Most mid-year adjustments simply top up discretionary funds, of which there are still some in HE, but they are limited. So  trailing the possibility of mid-year improvements stands out. Why do this?  Is the government hoping, or wanting to encourage others to hope, that while grants have been frozen, again, at their reduced level,  it will still find some way in the next few months to revisit a policy (grant cuts) which  it still has found no words to defend, nearly three years since it was first agreed.

[Update: on 15 May, a small increase in grants for 2015-16 was indeed announced: see here.]

How comfortable is the new minister with the current arrangements?

Further signs that the new minister may not be entirely comfortable with the situation she has inherited lie in the very long delay in publishing this year’s rates (six months later than usual, and  indeed as late as they could be, given applications were due to start this month), the absence of any associated government press release, and that the PQ above was (oddly) first subject to a “holding response” on its due date for answer, just last week – when the figures had already been out for three weeks.

Without wanting to over-do the kremlinology,  it’s hard to avoid noticing all these delays and silences, the surprising reference above to in-year change, and the abandonment of the more gung-ho presentational style which has dominated the government’s handling of student living cost funding since 2012.  It doesn’t seem too much to hope that Angela Constance’s own background and experience might mean that she is more alert to arguments about unfair long-term debt distribution than her predecessor, whose background appears to have been rather different.

Exactly how the government plans to use the £21m held back from the SFC’s budget for higher education institutions for “post 16 flexibility” remains unannounced (though some of it may be underwriting the plans to extend EMAs). Watch this space.

Footnote (1)

Worth noticing too is:

when that is affordable

because it confirms something obvious but avoided by many who are prepared to turn a blind eye to grant cuts, while fee spending remains protected.  The wording confirms that spending on grant is subject to an affordability test: no Scottish Government minister or spokesperson has ever suggested  tuition fee support labours under that constraint.   The position has been clear for a long time from the actual decision-making, but now is officially confirmed:  grants are a lower priority for spending than fees.

Footnote (2)

The answer notes that SAAS was handing out the 2015-16 guide several days before the site was updated and a month before any sort of formal confirmation of the rates was available (in this PQ, absent a press release). The information must have been with the printers for at least few days before that.   It’s really not  good public information practice that this information was made public first to those who happened to be at certain SAAS events and then by those who happened across the SAAS website, rather than in a proper announcement as soon as possible after the decision had been made.

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