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“A gulf is opening within our own generation”: a reminder of why debt distribution matters

November 14, 2015

Sometimes I wonder if I’m right to be so worried about the way the annual £0.5bn taken out in student debt in Scotland is carried disproportionately by those who started from poorer backgrounds.

I can show it happens (see here). I have an argument why it matters (the reinforcement of inequality down the generations). Some other people have picked it up (most recently, Universities Scotland was one of a number of those who mentioned it in evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee and BBC Scotland Kaye Adams Programme gave it a good airing late last month). And it’s gaining ground as an argument in England, in response to the plan to abolish student grants there (see here, for example).

But in Scotland the Scottish Government has yet to acknowledge the fact this happens. NUS Scotland has not taken it up as a particular problem (its recent Committee evidence at best alludes to it indirectly).  I provided evidence on it to the Commission on Widening Access, but it does not feature as an issue in the Commission’s interim report published this week, which concentrates on getting in and staying in but not on who carries the costs.  On a quick skim through (I’ve only had time to do a word search on debt and loan), debt distribution does not even make into the summary of the evidence submitted, provided in a separate document. It remains to be seen whether the Education and Culture Committee will use its one-off inquiry into student support to consider this: it is not an issue the Committee has so far been keen to explore.

I am always aware that  though I don’t come from Chipping Norton set levels of wealth (far from), neither am I from a low income family.  Who am I to make such a fuss about this if the people affected,  those who officially speak for them, the relevant professionals appointed to the Access Commission from across the system or most of those representing them in parliament, are not raising it?

Then along comes Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett.  In a piece today, she interviews young people mainly in their 20’s about the struggle they face moving on into adult life, in particular starting a family: see Babies? An impossible dream.  What starts as a piece framed in terms of generational differences – between “millennials” or “Generation Rent” and “baby boomers” – becomes quite quickly a piece about class and wealth.

She observes:

… by far the most commonly cited reason [for young women not discussing their desire to have a child]  is that they didn’t want to hurt their parents’ feelings by discussing how, in contrast to the parents of some of their peers, they are unable to give them that vital leg up. Everyone I spoke to wanted to stand on their own two feet, but they were aware that their parents shared their feelings of powerlessness and sadness. “It would kill my father to have this printed,” one woman said. “He’s a proud man.”


Many of them feel great sadness about this, not only because they look to their parents’ generation and see opportunities they’ve never had, but because a gulf is opening within our own generation – between those who can start a family or whose parents can help them get on the property ladder, and those who can’t. “The number of people who have said I should ask my dad for a deposit,” Andrea says. “As if his life doesn’t matter any more… My dad might live for another 20 years – I hope he does – and his care will cost. He needs his money.”


The more people I spoke to, the more apparent it became that this is not just about generational divides, but about class. Interviewees were forever mentioning friends or acquaintances who had been privileged enough to buy, while those from low-income backgrounds lost out.

One respondent from a self-defined working class background who did not go to university does suggest that her peers’ expectations are too high.  But she also acknowledges that “I have had some financial help from my parents when I’ve been desperate – I’m talking a couple of hundred quid a month” and that “[she] has never wanted children and, as an only child, knows that she will inherit her parents’ house when they die”.  So her position is less financially problematic than some others – “working class” can still cover a fair range of economic circumstances.

Cosslett’s piece rightly identifies wider trends in the housing and labour markets as the critical factors limiting the choices people of her generation feel able to make about starting a family.  But to ladle on top of this an unequal share of the student loan book does more than add insult to injury.  It means that the people least able to call on family help with mortgage deposits and other things as they reach their 20’s and 30’s are also the ones who are most likely to be opening their pay slips to see £50 [income =£25,000] or £100 [income = £31,000] a month returned to the state as the price of their participation in HE, and to go on having that happen to them for longest.

It’s a truly unfair situation and the inability of the great and the good of Scotland to face up to it should be a source of, at least, national discomfort if not shame.  So, thank-you, Rhiannon.  I’ll not go away yet.


My evidence to the Commission on Widening Access is here: Access Commission form July 2015  and Annex to Access Commission evidence

and to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee is here.

Both clearly draw attention to the regressive pattern of debt distribution in Scotland.





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