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Can a Scottish student be too much in Scotland to get funding? Apparently so

October 10, 2015

Back in August, anyone looking to see what was available in clearing for Scots in Scotland might have been surprised (I was) to see a degree in Professional Aviation Pilot Practice being provided by Middlesex University,  based at Tayside Aviation in Dundee.

It’s now emerging that this course is testing how far the Scottish Government is prepared to go in protecting a particular conception of free tuition.  At present, it looks as though defending its view of what “free tuition” should mean may require the Scottish Government to leave some Scottish students doing a full-time undergraduate UK university degree within Scotland with no access to help of any sort with their fees.

[Important note: individual students on this course or interested in it should seek information on the latest position direct from the course organisers or SAAS.  The same is true for the University of Glasgow/Chrisities course also discussed below.]

A full-time UK university undergraduate course in the UK which falls outside Scottish funding rules

The Courier reports that the Scottish Government has ruled that students on the Middlesex/Tayside course are not entitled to loans to cover their cost of their fees, although they would be were they to study in another part of the UK (e.g. at Middlesex’s London campus).  Nor can they get their fees paid by SAAS under the policy of “free tuition” because, although the course is in Scotland, it is not being provided by an institution funded by the Scottish Funding Council.

A temporary arrangement has been put in place for this year, presumably as a safety net for students who have applied under the impression that help would be available, before the position was clear.   But the SG is reported to have given no guarantees about the future. A Scottish Government spokeswoman has explained:

The Scottish Government has made clear that providing eligible students with a student loan of up to £27,000 to take this degree in Dundee directly contradicts that policy. [Note: what “that policy” is, is not explained: I’ll assume here it means free tuition.]

If this course continues in its current form, and the government holds its line, then students attending it from Scotland will be in the unusual position of being on a course provided by a UK university in the UK  but receiving no help in any form with their fees.  They will be a rare (perhaps unique?) case  where  the rhetoric of £9,000 fees as an issue of “ability to pay”  really is borne out by reality.  Ironically, for once the Scottish Government line is very clear about the existence (and advantage) of fee loans, with the spokeswoman adding:

As with any other course validated by an institution based in England, Scottish domiciled students can choose to study in England and receive support through the student loan system to help with tuition fees.

Free tuition in an increasingly cross-border world

Footnote 1 below looks at the legal position.  But it is the policy position which is more interesting: the law after all could be changed if needed – it is all fully within the scope of the Scottish Parliament.

We already knew that “free tuition” was a policy with various exceptions: see footnote 2 below.  As a result, its focus has been clearly on meeting the fees of Scots studying up to their first undergraduate degree at Scottish Government-funded institutions.

But the statement quoted in The Courier suggests the policy has a further element: it appears to require that no Scottish students who are physically studying within Scotland should be able to incur English-level debt for fees, whatever type of institution they attend.

This is an interesting proposition in a world where universities are becoming more experimental.  Overseas campuses are now very common: but what about cross-UK expansion?

The University of the West of Scotland was lately criticised by some for setting up a campus in London.   Heriot-Watt has a “London Associate Campus” (although the courses listed there appear no longer to be taking new entrants). Glasgow Caledonian also has a London campus, offering postgraduate study only.  And there may well be more such examples.

Closer to the Middlesex/Tayside example is Glasgow University’s new undergraduate course in History of Art where students spend the first two years based at Christie’s in London, before going to Glasgow for the second half of their degree. Students pay £15,000 a year to Christie’s for the first two years, then Glasgow fees for the second half.  The course organisers advise (see the “Undergraduate Only” tab here) that:

Christie’s Education is designated by Student Finance England to offer funding for UK and EU Undergraduate students. The maximum amount awarded is £6,000 per year for the first two years whilst at Christie’s Education.

Please note Christie’s Education is not designated by SAAS (Student Awards Agency Scotland), however Undergraduate students may be eligible for SAAS funding whilst at the University of Glasgow for years 3 and 4 of the programme.

[Note:  a separate note on the same site suggests that the Christies element may give access to some fee loan from SAAS: see here.  Interested students should check direct with the course organisers and SAAS]

(Poignantly, the university establishing an arrangement under which a few first-time, full-time Scottish undergraduates will be expected to pay £30,000 in fees, fully upfront, in order to get a particular degree from it, has also appointed as a Professor of Scottish Culture and Governance the former Cabinet Secretary for Education, who was a staunch opponent of any undergraduate tuition fees for Scots, once arguing that these would “destroy Scottish higher education”: see p54 here).

We could therefore end up with a presumably very privileged group (those Glasgow students able to afford to pay £30,000 upfront to Christies) still getting some state cash toward funding their later years of study, but another group, who may be from less privileged backgrounds – those wanting to stay in Scotland entirely to train as a pilot with Tayside Aviation and get a Middlesex degree – facing an almost equally large upfront unfunded cost (£27,000) and receiving no help with their fees at all, which is less than if they had found a similar course elsewhere in the UK.  That feels a little unbalanced.

The theology of free tuition

A quick detour to Norway is useful here.  That country has a much more complete free tuition policy than Scotland. Its publicly-funded universities are free for all undergraduates and post-graduates, including international students.  But something under 10% of Norwegians attend private universities, which charge fees which can be as much as £6,000 a year, for which these students can still borrow from the state. So Norway has a clear ideology that public institutions should be free for all students wherever they are from and at all levels. But having seen to that, it is willing to use some public funds to support participation by its citizens in other, non-free forms of HE within its borders.

A very different ethos is now being exhibited in Scotland, where lending money to students for higher fees incurred within the country at other (in this case, still public) providers is apparently not acceptable. Here’s the SG spokeswoman’s comment again (emphasis added):

The Scottish Government has made clear that providing eligible students with a student loan of up to £27,000 to take this degree in Dundee directly contradicts that policy … Scottish domiciled students can choose to study in England and receive support through the student loan system to help with tuition fees.

All the restrictions on free tuition in Scotland we already knew about could, at least arguably, be traced to some pragmatic justification, in particular affordability.  But the unwillingness to lend money to students on the Middlesex/Tayside course (or others which may follow) for their fees does not seem to come from a practical concern.  The Scottish Government has access to a very large amount of student loan funding via the Barnett formula and is willing to lend it to these students for fees for the same sort of course, if only they will go out of Scotland first.

The objection to lending to this group seems to come from a more clearly ideological position (or, less flatteringly, a presentational concern), that no Scottish student studying within the country’s borders should fall within the English fee structure and its associated level of fee-related debt; or at minimum that the Scottish Government should have nothing to do with such a situation. It’s very different from the rationale of the Norwegian approach.

Controlling what happens to citizens within a territory: the challenge of tangled systems

The Scottish Government is fully entitled to set its funding policies as it chooses, to reflect its own policy priorities.  That’s the point of devolution and can’t be stressed too much.

However if those choices leave some Scots unusually disadvantaged then that would deserve a  justification going beyond, say, political embarrassment that there were some Scots studying physically inside Scotland but incurring English levels of fee debt, supported by the Scottish Government.

A reference in the Courier piece to “productive talks” about “future course options” hints that some solution is being looked for which sidesteps the problem (such as, perhaps, a Scottish academic partner, or making this part of a more traditional sandwich course).  But even if the question is bypassed for now, there could be more such cases to come.  With evidence of some under-supply of government-capped places in Scotland relative to growing demand, it’s not hard to imagine a university in another part of the UK seeing the potential to set up a Scottish-based branch, directly or through a partner body.

In Northern Ireland, which has an acute shortage of places, there is even greater potential scope for such developments: what the Northern Irish government would do in such cases appears not yet to have been tested.

The SG’s response to the Middlesex/Tayside case also raises “do as you would be done by” questions, if Scottish universities want to come to analogous arrangements in the other direction.  It’s not impossible to imagine Scottish universities seeing opportunities to work with partners elsewhere in the UK to provide courses and looking to the funding bodies for English, Welsh and Northern Irish students to underwrite their attendance: Glasgow, as seen, is already doing this.  Might an absence of Scottish fee loans for cross-border outposts in Scotland rebound on further developments by their Scottish counterparts?

Conclusion

Although not everyone is happy about it, higher education institutions are feeling increasingly unconstrained by geography: properly managed, cross-border partnerships between universities, or between universities and specialist bodies,  might allow a richer set of choices for students.  However, a system of student funding driven by the imperative of controlling the situation of its own citizens within its own borders will struggle to maintain its perceived purity in such a world, without leaving some of its students to fall between stools or facing charges of protectionism.  All this is just starting to be tested: the decision in the Middlesex/Tayside case will be worth watching.

Footnote (1): the legal background

The rules about which courses entitle students to fee loans are in The Education (Student Loans for Tuition Fees) (Scotland) Regulations 2006 and specifically section 4.  This includes a rule (4(1)(d))  that

A course shall be designated [as enabling students to get a fee loan] if it is …wholly provided by an educational institution or institutions in the United Kingdom but outside Scotland, maintained or assisted by recurrent grants out of public funds or is provided by such an institution or institutions in conjunction with an institution or institutions outside the United Kingdom.

So the first question is whether the Middlesex/Tayside course is “wholly provided by an educational institution or institutions in the United Kingdom but outside Scotland”. The institution providing the degree is based in London, but the students are in Dundee.

It may be on an interpretation of (4(1)(d)) that the SG has reached its view of ineligibility. But the regulations also provide that:

(5) For the purposes of these Regulations a course is provided by an institution if it provides the teaching and supervision which comprise the course, whether or not it has entered into an agreement with the student to provide the course.

(6) For the purposes of paragraph (1) a university and any constituent college or institution in the nature of a college of a university shall be regarded as maintained or assisted by recurrent grants out of public funds if either the university or the constituent college or institution is so maintained or assisted.

(7) For the purposes of paragraph (1) an institution shall not be regarded as maintained or assisted by recurrent grants out of public funds by reason only that it receives public funds from the governing body of a higher education institution in accordance with section 65(3A) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 [Note: this section deals with situations where a publicly-funded university or college passes funds on to a partner organisation]

Somewhere in these may lie further reasons to deny fee loans to these students. Perhaps (7) suggests that the law does not intend that fee loans should be  available to students attending courses run at arms’ length, although the government line, “As with any other course validated by an institution based in England, Scottish domiciled students can choose to study in England and receive support through the student loan system to help with tuition fees” does not immediately suggest that.

The 2006 regulations have been heavily amended, but I can’t spot an amendment to section 4.   Surreal digression:  one of the official links to subsequent amendments to the regulations takes the reader to The Curd Cheese (Restriction on Placing on the Market) (Scotland) Revocation Regulations 2007 (really: click on 2009/188 in the list in the footnote here).

Footnote (2):

The Scottish Government covers the fees of:

(a)  Scottish-domiciled (and non-UK EU) students studying for a full-time, first-time higher eductaion qualification at a Scottish-government supported HE provider (that is, one funded by the Scottish Funding Council)

… but not of:

(b)  postgraduates, second-time around undergraduates, part-timers with an income over £24,000,  students from the rest of the UK and  international students, who between them account for over half of all enrollments in Scotland and who have to self-fund or find a public or private sponsor; or

(c) Scots studying at a variety of private providers in Scotland (and elsewhere in the UK), who may get a contribution towards their fees, but will have to find the balance themselves; or

(d) Scots who go to study in the rest of the UK, who must borrow the whole fee amount (in contrast to Welsh students, who get a fully portable fee grant for over half their fee cost).

Footnote 3: Living costs

The report does not make clear whether students’ entitlements to living cost support is also in dispute. It may not be:  living cost support, unlike fees, is the same wherever in the UK a student studies, although the course must still be provided by a recognised body, so any problem with the arms’ length arrangement here  could possibly  bite.

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