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Drop out for financial reasons: a revealing use of FoI by The Courier

March 8, 2016

The Courier has just published this piece –  Students financial struggles laid bare  – which reports data it has collected from universities around Scotland, using FoI, on the number of students dropping out for financial reasons in each of the past four and a half years. It covers all universities except Glasgow and St Andrews, which both declined to return figures.  It’s important to note that these figures record whether students report financial reasons for leaving early – but drop out is a complex  thing, and it’s often about several things at once.

2013-14 saw the introduction of the SG’s “minimum income guarantee” (MIG) which increased the maximum support available for students in all years of study, provided they were willing to take on significant additional amounts of debt.  So it is interesting to look at whether there is an obvious difference in the figures from that year.

At national level, the figures after 2013-14 are clearly lower than the years before – but there is also a falling trend from 2011-12 onwards: the figures are 440, 411, 380 and 328.  So there was a similar drop between 2011-12 and 2012-13, and between 2012-13 and 2013-14. Thus, how far the MIG has had a specific effect remains open to debate.

Also, at the level of institutions, it’s a mixed picture.  In 2013-14, of the 13 universities who  responded, 6 saw a drop in the numbers dropping out reportedly for financial reasons in 2013-14, 6 saw an increase and one stayed the same.  Changes in local institutional practice rather than funding could be having a large impact.

The numbers are relatively small for most institutions, so there are limits to what can be deduced from individual year to year changes.  Also, it appears these figures could include  students from outside Scotland as well, so Scotland-only trends would require more digging.   For Edinburgh in particular, which saw a large rise in 2013-14, students from around the UK could be having an impact.  Without Edinburgh there would be a much clearer drop across Scotland  in 2013-14.

However, The Courier also obtained from three universities in its area the numbers seeking help from hardship funds.  In every case the numbers doing so have risen since 2013-14.  This is a larger group, less vulnerable to small sample effects and therefore more likely to be telling us something substantial – and these are all universities with far fewer non-Scottish students than Edinburgh.

The main conclusion from these figures is that, whatever else, the MIG has not done much to address the most extreme cases of hardship – and that’s perhaps not surprising.  Not only is it very dependent on willingness to borrow, the funding available drops sharply as income rises.  To get the MIG requires students to come from families with incomes below £17,000: support drops in sharp steps at £17,000 and £24,000, and by the time income reaches £34,000, state support (all via loan at this point) is lower in Scotland for those away from home than it is anywhere else in the UK – a lot lower than in either Wales or England.

One  thing which is apparent from The Courier’s report is that Scottish Government remains determined to brazen things out.  Here’s its line as reported:

“Our commitment to free tuition, the prospect of the lowest average debt [Note: why this line does not tell you what you may think it does, is discussed here] and the best graduate prospects in the UK saw a record number of Scots accepted to study at Scottish universities last year.

“In contrast to the UK Government, who are abolishing maintenance grants for new students in England entirely from 2016-17, we increased the grant element of our package for the poorest students by £125 in 2015-16. [Note: having cut grants by figures generally either side of £1,000 a year in 2013-14.  The recent UK grant cut has been a presentational gift for the SG.]

“Our minimum income guarantee for undergraduate students from the poorest households living at home is £7,625 per year – the highest package of support in the UK.” [Note: Not so – Wales provides almost £8,000  for those away from home, mainly as grant.  The SG  package is only highest for those living at home.]




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