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A shameful political achievement: Scotland’s poorest now more concerned about free tuition than funding for the schools they use

April 8, 2016

IPSOS MORI Scotland has published some opinion polling about people’s priorities for the forthcoming elections (it was undertaken for the BBC).  The tables are here.

Among the questions asked were two propositions about education, selected presumably by the BBC:

Give schools with high numbers of children from poorer backgrounds more money to spend than other schools (Table 12)

and

Allow all students from Scotland to attend Scottish universities for free (Table 13)

The total figure of support for the question on “free university” – it averaged 8.1%, lower only than one related to the NHS – has been widely interpreted as support for free tuition specifically, although technically the question is broader. In theory, this could be showing support  just as much for having 100% grant support for living costs, which Scotland certainly does not have. It would have been clearer, therefore, if whoever set this question had asked specifically about fees, assuming that was what the BBC wanted to know about.  But this is all we have to go on. I’ll go with the widespread interpretation that these results tap mainly into the fee debate.

Here are the results by deprivation quintile (ie most deprived 20%, next most deprived 20% etc).  The percentage shown is the percentage of those responding in each quintile who rated each suggestion as at least “7” on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest importance: this follows the method used by IPSOS MORI to summarise the results. But the general pattern looks much the same if you look just at, say, those who rated the propositions “10”.

To these numbers I have added the university entry rates through UCAS at age 18 for each quintile for 2015, using SIMD data. The figures would be higher in absolute terms  if we included those doing sub-degree HE in an FE college: but (a) the BBC asked specifically about university and (b) the figures would still show the same general pattern of skew.

Most deprived Least deprived
Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Q5
Extra £s for schools with poorer intake 58% 67% 56% 64% 54%
Free university attendance 86% 80% 76% 80% 74%
UCAS entry rate at age 18 in 2015 9.7% 17.4% 24.0% 30.3% 41.1%

There’s something striking here. The highest support for free university attendance is amongst the most deprived 20%; and their support for that is substantially higher than their support for additional investment in schools with larger numbers of poorer children.

The most deprived are also far less likely to go to university: they are nine times more likely to see universal free tuition as an important issue as to enter university at the age of 18. By contrast, they are slightly more than half as likely to  seek extra investment in schools, as to go to school. Even by age 30, the initial entry rate to HEIs for this group is still only around 16%: even acknowledging there will also be some moving from a college to a university, participation in university-level HE remains remains relatively low.

What’s your reaction to these results? Maybe it’s pride, that Scotland has such cross-class solidarity for the cause of “free university”.

Mine is somewhat more between anger and shame. Shame that the poorest in Scottish society have been marched up the rhetorical hill of free tuition so successfully that they have been persuaded to rate  the government paying every last penny of the fees of the children of more advantaged households substantially more highly than extra investment in their own children’s schools.

Never mind that very few of these poorer households will get to see a member benefit from free tuition. Or that if they do, they will get paltry cash assistance with their living costs and end up either trying to get through their course on very small amounts of cash help from the state or racking up larger debts than their peers from better off homes.

These figures are a tribute to all those in Scottish politics who have worked to close down the debate on student funding, first, to remove any serious reference to living cost debt, and its unequal distribution and, second, to obscure that there might be alternatives which are neither current Scottish nor current English policy – such things as a partial fee contributions, or means-tested fee grants, just to name two, which would allow us to invest more equally in everyone’s education. The narrative has become so firmly university has to be either free or £27,000, upfront, now – the only choices ever contemplated. Indeed, the BBC’s own question continues that narrow offer by asking only about free university for all (the BBC has a habit of boiling all opinion questions about higher education down to free tuition/university – see here).

The reaction to the Scottish Conservatives floating their £6,000 post-graduation charge has functioned as a reminder of how impoverished the debate here has become. The Daily Record ran a piece which repeated some completely misleading maths (analysed here) which must have been briefed from somewhere. In a later article The Record (to its credit) seemed to pick up that they’d been partly misled – but then grabbed for a quote from the NUS which confusingly suggested that the Conservative proposals would mean government funding to universities being reduced, a claim for which there was no evident basis at all, and which was indeed completely at odds with the alternative criticism that no extra money would be released for FE for many years.

In other words, if anyone raises any alternative at all to the current system in Scotland, counter-arguments will swiftly emerge based on various misunderstandings rather than an honest and clear explanation of why keeping young people from better-off homes out of any debt whatsoever for their time at university is so especially important, compared to all the other education-related things on which we could spend a bit more of our money.

Those already most disadvantaged in Scotland have been let down badly here. Huge amounts of energy have gone into encouraging them to have a view on a potential up-front cost which (a) would be attached to an activity they are relatively unlikely to take part in, (b) is routinely described as “£27,000” when no party in Scotland has proposed imposing that on anyone for a function which has been wholly devolved since 1999 and (c) isn’t even really what happens in England (where  almost all students use fee loans to defer costs until they are earning).

The figures above show that nothing like the same energy has gone into encouraging these communities to see themselves as entitled to more investment in their own children’s schools – maybe for additional educational interventions, more general personal support, greater access to school facilities as an alternative to home before and after normal school hours, or just for doing things which would lessen the cost of participation in school for poorer families (as highlighted in Learning Lessons, discussed here). Investment here is not just about effects on attainment, it’s about the potential for schools to make life a bit less hard right now for disadvantaged individual children, their families and communities.

As a reflection of our political culture, shameful seems to me the right description of this situation.

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