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Average annual student borrowing across the UK 2014-15: Scotland’s claim to lowest debt under challenge

December 3, 2015

The Student Loans Company has now produced (on 2 December) the annual student support statistics for the England, Northern Ireland and Wales.  The Scottish figures came out in October from the Student Awards Agency Scotland. They show that attempts to distinguish the Scottish system as producing substantially lower debt than all other parts of the UK are not supported by the numbers.

Average debt across all incomes

Here are the figures for annual average borrowing in 2014-15. A further column has been added, which projects that debt over 3 or 4 years, as appropriate.

Average annual borrowing Hons degree-length implied
x3 E/NI/W;   x4 S
England 10,370 31,110
Northern Ireland 6,820 20,460
Scotland 5,270 21,080
Wales 6,370 19,110
Sources: For SLC data, Table 4D or E in each case; for Scotland Table A6.

The annual point is important: as my additional column shows, at these levels of actual borrowing, average debt for Scottish students would be expected to be higher after four years than it would for Welsh or Northern Irish students after three. Northern Ireland has the same interest rate as Scotland.  Wales (and England) use a higher one – but a partial debt cancellation scheme for Welsh students worth a flat £1,500 has the effect of removing any difference due to interest.  These are therefore reasonable like-for-like comparisons.

For this sort of borrowing, Northern Irish students won’t get as much maintenance support as Scots, but Welsh students at low to middle incomes will get more (often quite a bit more: see Figure 2 here Evidence to Ed Cttee October 2015).

Scotland still has the edge on the proportion of students emerging debt free, with around 30% of students taking out no loan, compared to  more like 10% in the rest of the UK.  However, as discussed in the evidence linked in the previous paragraph,  where these are low income Scottish students, they are only able to achieve this by managing on very low levels of grant.  In practice, the SAAS statistics suggest that 70% of Scots leaving with no debt are from higher income homes.

I’m surprised the English figure has only risen from £9,210 to £10,370. The SLC figures show that by 2014-15, 90% of students were on the post-2012 arrangements and faced with higher fees.  I’d therefore expected it to be approaching £12,000.  That it hasn’t risen more sharply  may perhaps be an effect of the various localised bursary and fee waiver schemes or it could be a sign of students choosing to avoid extra maintenance debt – certainly, it deserves more explanation.  The political rhetoric (not least in Scotland) is of typical debts of £44,000 plus at the end of a degree: these figures imply something more like £32-35,000,  with a bit of grossing up to take out the residual effect of pre-2012 students.  However, the abolition of grant will push the English number up again next year.

Debt by income

The Scottish figures are also produced by income and look like this

Average loan (borrowers only) 4 year projection
No income and receiving bursary (ie mainly mature students) 6,649 26,596
Up to £16,999 5,870 23,480
£17,000 to £23,999 5,720 22,880
£24,000 to £33,999 5,570 22,280
£34,000 and above 4,600 18,400
No income declared: receiving no bursary (ie mainly incomes over £34,000) 4,560 18,240

We don’t have the other UK home nations by income for 2014-15, but I do have that information for 2012-13 from the SLC. It’s discussed here. The underlying structure of each scheme hasn’t changed since then: in brief, we would still expect that in England debt at low incomes will be at or below average, while in Wales and NI it will be below average, in the opposite of the situation in Scotland shown above.

Therefore, it’s almost certain that in practice at some low incomes at least annual borrowing in Wales is lower than it is in Scotland  and it may sometimes be in NI too.  That’s even before different degree lengths are taken into account.


In short, levels of of actual borrowing in Scotland  are only lower than the other devolved nations if we look at averages  and ignore longer periods of study.

At lower incomes, it looks likely that  students from Wales (and maybe NI) will often in practice have less debt each year; while across the whole student population on average, debt will be higher in Scotland than Wales or NI for a typical honours degree.   Even the gap in practice between a mature Scot after 4 years (£26,500) and an English student after three (£32-35,000) doesn’t look quite as big as the rhetoric might lead you to expect.

Scotland does still have the largest proportion of non-borrowers: they will be overwhelmingly from better-off backgrounds.

The Scottish Government’s addiction to outdated and misleading SLC final debt figures to compare the position of Scotland with the rest of  the UK really needs to end: the figures here provide a much more realistic set of comparisons for people interested in what’s really happening.




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