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Student guest blog #1: “We need to start being honest about higher education”

February 15, 2016

This is the first student guest blog on this site. It’s by a third year Scottish student in his late twenties at university in England. I’m very grateful to him for being willing to write something here.

Graeme first went to university in Scotland straight from school at 17, but things didn’t work out and he left his five year course at the end of third year. Having worked for a couple of years and thought about what he really wanted to do, in 2012 he applied to go back to university, deferring entry to 2013 in order to save up.  In his first year, the Scottish Government provided him with a living cost loan but no fee loan or grant, because he had had some funding in the past.  In his second and third year he has received a fee loan, a living cost loan and Independent Student Bursary.

Here are his thoughts on his journey through higher education and the funding system.

 

For most, studying (and student finance) is a pretty straight-forward think; apply via UCAS, get offered places, apply to SAAS, find somewhere to live, move (perhaps) and enrol. But it doesn’t always go as smoothly as that, which is certainly my experience. When leaving school I had thought it would be the former rather than the latter, but the career I decided to pursue turned out to be the wrong one, quite simply it didn’t meet either my aptitude or desires. So I left the course before completing it fully, and found a job that paid the bills but didn’t make any use of the creative skills I had gained at university. After a couple of years I began to think seriously about my future career prospects. Did I want to continue being (effectively) underemployed or have a job that I could have passion for? I opted for the latter, and came to the realisation that a thread running through my experience of school up to this point was graphic design.

This is why I decided to return to higher education, as it would give me the support and time to gain confidence in my existing design skills (I left my previous course with very low morale), learn new ones, and put myself on a better long term career path. Importantly to allow myself to do that I decided that returning to an undergraduate course would give me the best opportunity of success. After researching into courses and possible options I applied to universities in Scotland & England, accepting the only unconditional offer I received, which was from a university in England.

As noted above my first year of my new course was treated as repeated study, meaning that I was responsible for paying my tuition fees directly, which as I am sure anyone readying this will expect is £9,000. At the time I was earning about £13,000 per year before tax deductions so was in no position to do this, especially when also holding significant personal debt. I therefore deferred my place to help save up and work as much overtime as possible. But even with that in order to take up my place the next year required some shrewd financial planning.

A down-payment of fees was made using a credit card (£2,500), subsequent payments were made using the loan for living costs that I received (£6,500 – the 2013-14 rate) and I supported myself with the credit card and with part time work. For second year I maintained part time work and combined with the loan for living costs (£6,750) and Independent Student’s Bursary (£750) I was able to clear some of my personal debt so I was no longer living on quite the financial cliff edge month to month as I had before. Now in my final year I decided to end working part-time in order to focus fully on my studies so I am now fully reliant on some modest savings from additional summer work and the support received from SAAS.

Now approaching headlong towards graduation I am confident that I made the right decision to return to university, and have made considerable progress on my aims for studying. But I remain unconvinced that the financial struggle has been worth it. It obviously causes a lot of stress day-to-day but I will also be emerging with considerable debts. I will still have almost £3,000 of personal debt, and will have added £38,000 (2 years of £9,000 tuition fees and 3 years of living costs loans) to my previous student loan, which I think will bring it to a figure of around £50,000 (accumulating interest as well of course).

Being someone who actually has been subject to higher education policies from both the UK Government and Scottish Government I would like to offer two points.

1.    Higher education in Scotland is not free, as often touted by many (politicians included). Yes, tuition fees in Scotland, for most Scottish & EU students are free, but the decision to go to university (whether that is in Scotland or elsewhere) always requires a substantial financial undertaking.

2.    We need to start being honest about higher education. Honest about what is possible and what it may cost, and preferably on a cross-party basis. The first step towards this would be the acceptance that most political parties (Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the SNP) are responsible for the current conditions of student finance. As a student today it is pretty disheartening to see a class of politicians who did enjoy very generous student finance use the issue as something to make political capital out of.

 

Policy note

The determination which Graeme has needed to show in returning to university and getting through his current course is the single most striking thing for me in his story.

All I knew when we first got in touch was that Graeme was affected by Scottish policy on student grant. He turned out to be at the sharp end of several different decisions. Though his situation is unique to him, and there shouldn’t be many Scottish students with as much debt, he won’t be at all unusual in not conforming to the stereotype he describes at the start. Interrupted studies or repeat years are not that uncommon. Students on longer degrees or who start with an HN and then undertake a degree can also end taking 5 or 6 years to complete. Government debts of over £30,000 are far from impossible in such cases, even for those who can stay in Scotland.

Here are the policies which Graeme’s situation brings out particularly clearly:

  • The lack of a portable fee grant: a student in Graeme’s position from Wales would have been able to limit her or his fee borrowing to less than £4,000 a year, because the Welsh Government provides its fee subsidy as a fully portable grant.
  • Low maintenance grant, especially for mature students: Scotland is the only UK nation to give mature students a lower grant than younger ones (a difference dating back to the early years of devolution). Under the Welsh rules, Graeme would have been entitled to the same full grant as a young student (£5,161 a year) rather than £750 (£875 this year). The Northern Irish and English rules would have awarded him over £3,000 a year in grant, although the English figure is about to drop to zero.
  • Availability of places: it is harder to judge the effects in any individual case, but there are signs from UCAS and other sources that the supply of places in Scotland is not keeping up with demand and that some students from Scotland are turning to provision over the border because of that.
  • Previous study: any system has to find a way to cope with students who wish to resume studying after already having had some support. Some of the most difficult decisions made by SAAS will relate to these cases and it is important that there is leeway in the system to deal with them as fairly as possible. For students in this position, it’s worth being aware, first, that as here you may be able to get some further help, even if you’ve had assistance before, and also that the Carnegie Trust exists specifically to help Scottish students who fall outside the SAAS rules with their fees, but only if they can get a place in Scotland.

The piece finishes with a call for better recognition that going to university is still a substantial financial undertaking for many Scots and for a cross-party approach to how we could deal better with that. I’ll finish there too.

 

 

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