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Final student loan debt in Scotland up by 26%

June 18, 2015

The Student Loans Company has just published the figures for the average debt students in each part of the UK have on entering repayment – in effect, graduates’ total final debt.

The figures are increasing in all 4 UK countries: see table below.  Scotland continues to have the lowest absolute figure, but the impact of changes to its student support system in 2013-14 are now feeding through, giving it the highest percentage increase, at 26%, and the highest 5-year change, at 37%.

The changes in Scotland only affected the final year of study for this cohort: it will take several more years for the full effect of the changes introduced in 2013-14 to feed through.  Rises on a similar scale are likely to be repeated next year and the year after.

The Scottish Government regularly uses this UK comparison to defend its decision to reduce spending on grants: the First Minister recently quoted the 2014 ones during FMQs.  Whether this jump in the Scottish number will affect its future use remains to be seen. These figures are not, for example, mentioned in today’s news release on a UCAS analysis of applications since 2006.

In comparing these figures across the UK, some strong health warnings are needed, which are discussed in more detail here. In summary,

  • Scotland has a higher proportion of students on one- and two-year HN-level courses, which pulls down its average.  The Scottish figure represents the equivalent of a little under 3 years’ worth of borrowing, while the standard length degree is four years.  Figures for the other UK nations  also equal around 3 years’ borrowing on average – but that is much more typically the length of time it takes to obtain a degree in those places. So to compare the average experience of a university student, the Scottish figure needs to be “grossed up” by one-third (giving just over £12,500, closing the gap but still lower than elsewhere).
  • More importantly, the average conceals considerable variation by income.  This is particularly true in Scotland where – uniquely – those from lower incomes tend to borrow above average, rather than belowsee here. The Student Awards Agency for Scotland separately records annual borrowing by income (see footnote).  Using that data, average borrowing by students from the lowest incomes  in Scotland in the four years up to 2014 comes to between £16,000 and £20,000, depending on whether they are young or mature.  

The figures derived from SAAS data give a much more accurate reflection of what poorer Scots leaving university in Scotland last year will typically have borrowed  than the much lower SLC figure issued today.  For these students, the SAAS-derived figures suggest that for the cohort leaving university last year,  degree-length borrowing for poorer students in Scotland was comparable with that in the rest of the UK and not, as the SLC figures are often wrongly used to imply, significantly lower.

SLC figures released 18 June 2015

Figures have been provided by SLC back to 2010.

Change
2010 2014 2015 Yr-on-Yr £ 5 yrs
England 14680 20060 21180 6% 1120 31%
Northern Ireland 12540 17340 18160 5% 820 31%
Scotland 5950 7480 9440 26% 1960 37%
Wales 12580 17230 19010 10% 1780 34%

 

The figures do not take into account the increase in fees in 2012 for English students and most of those crossing a UK border to study.  The first graduates from that group are only completing their studies this summer.  Only the small numbers  of students included n these figures who for whatever reason left their course early will have been affected. The English figures will increase sharply next year, as will those for Northern Ireland, a significant minority of whose students  go to the rest of the UK and are now paying higher fees.  Only Welsh students will be unaffected, as they receive a fee grant which has sheltered them from the change, wherever they study.  It can be confidently predicted that next year’s figures will be very large news indeed.

Footnote

Average actual borrowing at low incomes from 2010-11, using figures from Table 12 in the three SAAS data sets linked.  2013-14 figures do not provide a separate category for “exempt” (mainly mature) students , or for incomes up to £10,000, which will be where the poorest young students are mainly found: figures for incomes up to £16,999 have been used for both, from Table A6 of the linked document.

Exempt (ie Nil income) <£10,000
2010-11 3199 4508
2011-12 3490 4805
2012-13 3715 4965
2013-14 5610 5610
16014 19888
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