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Constance begins to unpick Russell’s “simplification” of student support

May 15, 2015

Angela Constance MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning  announced this week that, in effect, a key assumption underlying the Scottish Government’s  2013 student funding reforms is under review.

STOP PRESS: 2 minutes after posting this, I saw today’s SG announcement that it plans to increase the maximum bursary by £125 and return the threshold to where it was before the Russell reforms took effect.  See here.

London allowance: a casualty of “simplification”

Setting out his plans for 2013 onwards,  Michael Russell MSP, Ms Constance’s predecessor, emphasised that this would be the “most straightforward package of student support in the UK”.  That appears to have been based largely on two things.

  • Entitlements which previously had fallen  incrementally as income rose would now reduced in steps.
  • In addition, there would now be a single scale for living cost support, wherever students lived or studied.

The second of these replaced the approach in use since at least 1962, and still found in other parts of the UK, where students are given less  than the standard package if they live at home,  and more if they go to study in London.  In recent times, lower or higher loan has been used to create the difference, with grant unaffected by where students study or live.

Asked in December 2013 to explain the sudden decision to remove the additional London allowance (including for students mid-course),  Mr Russell simply replied (S4W-18794 8 January 2014):

The Post 16 Education Reform Programme has simplified the student support system, making it easier for students to understand and maximise their entitlement. The new student support package introduced in 2013-14 standardised the level of living cost support irrespective of where in the UK a Scottish domiciled student studies.

Further details about London allowance provided in response to another PQ that day  are included as a footnote to this post: on close reading, they suggest that some students may have seen an absolute fall in the value of their support.

Simplification revisited

A rather different response to much the same question was given on Tuesday of this week (emphasis added):

Ken  Macintosh  (Eastwood)  (Scottish  Labour):  To  ask  the  Scottish  Government  whether  support  for  living  costs  available  to  Scottish  domiciled  students  studying  at  a  university  in  London  are  lower  than  that  available  to  English  domiciled  students  and,  if  so,  for  what  reason.

Angela  Constance:  We  introduced  a  new  support  package  for  all  Scottish  domiciled  students  in  the  academic  year  2013  –  14.  Every  eligible  Scottish  domiciled  student,  whether  they  choose  to  study  for  free  at  a  Scottish  institution,  or  elsewhere  in  the  UK,  has  the  same  eligibility  for  help  with  living  costs.  While  we  have  simplified  the  system  so  that  it  provides  an  annual  minimum  income  of  £7,500  for  all  students  with  a  family  income  of  less  than  £17,000,  it  no  longer  features  weighted  living  cost  payments  linked  to  the  location  of  study.  Accordingly,  total  living  –  cost  support  available  to  eligible  Scottish  domiciled  students  studying  at  university  in  London  would  be  lower  than  that  available  to  English  domiciled  students.  However,  as  Mr  Macintosh  may  well  be  aware,  there  are  other  university  locations  where  there  are  issues  with  living  costs.  Mr  Macintosh  has  raised  an  important  issue  and  I  intend  to  consider  it  more  fully,  including  the  numbers  of  Scottish  domiciled  students  affected,  the  costs  involved  and  I  am  happy  to  bring  the  issue  back  to  the  Chamber  or  to  Mr  Macintosh  in  due  course.

(S4W – 25398)

And then on Wednesday (emphasis added again):

Ken Macintosh  (Eastwood) (Scottish Labour):  To ask  the Scottish Government whether it plans  to review the levels of support for living costs available to Scottish domiciled students who study  elsewhere in the UK.

Angela Constance:  As already indicated, I intend to consider the issue more fully, including the  numbers of Scottish domiciled students affected and the costs involved, and am happy to bring the  issue back to the Chamber and to Mr Macintosh in due course. If Mr Macintosh has a particular  constituent concern I would be happy to discuss it with him.

(S4W  –  25399)

Back to the future (and beyond)?

The abolition of the London allowance deserves revisiting.  Scots from low-to-middle income backgrounds who wish to study in London are now at a significant disadvantage in terms of upfront help with living costs  – though putting the situation right simply by restoring a higher loan would leave low income Scots in London with some of the largest debt of any group in the UK, because since 2013 Scotland has provided so little student grant and these students are also of course subject to  fees up to £9,000, for which their home jurisdiction provides no cash help (in contrast to their Welsh border-crossing counterparts, for example).

More intriguing is the reference to other places with high living costs.  A system of differential support not just for London but elsewhere would not just reverse Michael Russell’s programme of simplification, it would go in completely the opposite direction, introducing new differentials into the  system.

Other “simplifications” deserving re-examination

And where would such recogniton of variable costs leave the decision to offer the same living costs to those living at home and away?  Scotland is not particularly generous for “away from home”  students as it stands, including those at middle incomes (see here).  If there’s a logic to restoring the London allowance on grounds of greater costs, so there is for rebalancing resources between those at home and those away.  It affects far more people

Michael Russell defended his  decisions here, too, in questions answered in January 2014 (S4W-19054 here).  But in much the same way as above. Asked whether the Scottish Government still agreed with statements in an earlier consultation (Supporting a Smarter Scotland: A consultation on supporting learners in higher education, 2008) that students who stay away from home while at university

are likely to face greater financial pressures from a number of areas including rent and rising food and fuel costs

while

younger students staying in the parental home tended to have the lowest incomes and expenditure,

the best he could manage was:

The Scottish Government recognises the diversity in the circumstances of students. A key aim of the Post 16 Education Reform Programme is to simplify the main student support system whilst ensuring maximum benefit for all students,

and

The Scottish Government recognises the impact of increases in the cost of living for students. A key aim of the Post 16 Education Reform Programme is to simplify the main student support system whilst ensuring maximum benefit for all students.

And then there’s those stepped entitlements, which mean that as soon as income rises from £16,999 to £17,000, a young student loses £750 in grant; at £24,000, a further £500; and at £34,000, £500 in grant and £1000 in loan. Mature students face different but similar cliffs.  Good public policy tends to avoid, rather than introduce, such sharp marginal effects.

Where next for the Russell legacy?

This recent post noted signs that the new Cabinet Secretary may not be entirely keen on the student support arrangements  inherited from her predecessor.

His simplification agenda certainly always looked to include a fair dose of rough justice. It remains mysterious to this author why NUS Scotland said nothing about the situation of students going to London, accepted the stepped system with such enthusiasm, and settled for relatively limited increases in upfront support for many of those away from the parental home at low to middle incomes, while those living at home saw very substantial improvements.  There is more discussion of these points in my February 2014 report.

The “simplified” model is certainly easier to describe on the SAAS website, as well as in press releases and ministerial speeches.  But if the new minister thinks that the present balance between ease of presentation and providing what students need favours the first too much, that’s to be welcomed.

Yet  the situation she is looking into is one introduced by her own government, less than 2 years ago.  Any criticism or detailed scrutiny of the 2013 changes has met with a bullish reaction.  Michael Russell once responded to a parliamentary motion seeking the restoration of grant cuts as a move to “destroy Scottish higher education”, for example: see pp 51-54 here. Ms Constance was a junior Minister working to him at the time, while the now First Minister was then powerfully positioned as deputy FM.  It’s hard to avoid the impression that a system with obvious flaws was pushed through with more thought to headlines than  its actual impact on all the individuals affected.  One of its most fundamental problems – the regressive distribution of student debt – remains apparently  undiscussable.  Indeed, even yet Ministers have still to acknowledge  that they cut student grants.

Signs of willingness to look again should be encouraged.  But someone still  in the government   (not  Glasgow’s new Professor of Culture and Governance) needs to admit and take responsibility for the full impact of its 2013 reforms.

Simples.

 Footnote: the London Allowance in its last year

Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Scottish Labour):
To ask the Scottish Government in what year additional support for Scottish students studying in London was last made available and what the (a) maximum value of additional support and (b) total amount paid was that year. (S4W-18795)
Michael Russell:
Additional support was last made available to students studying in London in 2012 -13. (a) The maximum support for students studying a 30 week course in London was £6,690. This was £1120 higher than students studying a 30 week course elsewhere. Courses longer than 30 weeks in London attracted additional support of £109 per week. This was £24 higher than the additional support for a course elsewhere. (b) It is not possible to identify the total amount of additional support awarded in 2012-13 to students studying in London.  (8 January 2014)
On close examination, there is something odd  about the numbers in this answer.  Figures extracted from the SAAS website before the relevant pages were removed in Spring 2013 show the maximum standard away from home package  in 2012-13 as £6,380, not – as the answer appears to suggest – £5,570 (£6,690 less £1,120).   In fact, running some numbers,  it seems possible that depending on whether (and if so how) the London allowance was tapered out, at most incomes below around £40,000 students may have seen the total value of their support fall, in some cases by sums of up to £1,000 a year – it’s worth stressing that this would have included people already part-way through their studies.   The only way to check would be to have access to the full figures for 2012-13, but these are no longer available on-line.
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