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What the 2016 manifestos say about student funding in Scotland

May 4, 2016

The table linked here – Policy table SP elections 2016 party summaries -pulls together all the material I can find in the 2016 manifestos relevant to this blog’s general interest in student funding in HE.   It’s a bit unwieldy and may still be incomplete – feel free to alert me to any major omissions or errors.

The table is organised in two parts. The first looks at how far the parties covered the issues which were identified in advance in this post – A framework for reading the manifestos on student funding –  as potentially interesting.  The second part covers other points raised by the parties and not anticipated in the earlier post.  The table shows that most of the issues identified as possible areas for proposals have been picked up by at least one party.

A few quick initial observations on particular points.

Grant/bursary

Student grant was so low down the political agenda in Scotland by the start of the last parliament that the SNP in government identified it as a soft target for cuts in 2012 and managed, for quite some time and with the help of the then NUS leadership, to keep that out of public debate. Things have changed. Labour, the Lib Dems and RISE all promise to reverse the SNP’s grant cuts. The Conservatives imply there will be higher grants for poorer students. The SNP will “work to improve” bursaries.

The SNP’s new interest in grant has probably been prompted by some combination of: opposition refusal to let the issue go, increased media interest over time, a change of approach by NUS and – least upliftingly, perhaps – by the decision to cut grants in England from this autumn, making this suddenly a “Scottish distinctiveness” issue.  Whatever has done it, it seems that further cuts to grants are at least unlikely.

However, a huge unknown lies in the SNP promise of a review of student funding to make it “fairer”, particularly between FE and HE students. While all the parties committing to better grants have identified a mechanism to fund them (tax increases for Labour, Lib Dems and RISE, a graduate contribution for the Conservatives), the SNP’s headache lies in having to pack all its commitments into a UK-derived budget facing real terms cuts, with no plans for substantial new revenue raising within Scotland to compensate.

Unequal debt sharing

Labour and RISE have both commented during the campaign on the unfairness of the skewing of student debt towards poorer students. A “fairer” system of student support might be expected to address this, but there remains as yet no recognition by the SNP that this is an equity issue.

The inequitable situation where mature first-time HE students get less grant and more debt than younger ones remains one the main parties are reluctant to acknowledge (it would be very costly to address). Mature first time HE students are far more likely to come from more disadvantaged backgrounds, so this is an especially anti-social justice situation. The SNP’s funding review, in one part of their manifesto but not in another, appears to be limited to age 16 to 24 support. The SNP’s strong association of education policy with youth deserves a post in its own right. Here, I will simply welcome that one party (RISE) has picked up the lower grant for mature students as a problem which deserves addressing.

Loan scheme

An increase in the loan repayment threshold is promised by all four main parties, addressing a serious deficiency of the current Scottish arrangements for debt repayment, which means low earners are hit particularly hard in Scotland. The SNP and Labour also undertake to reduce the period after which debt is written off from 35 to 30 years, bringing Scotland into line with the rest of the UK. This should all be affordable from within the student loan subsidy provided to the SG by the UK government, which at present appears not to be fully used.  The arguments for these changes were first made on this site in March 2014 – see here – and have been made since by the Liberal Democrats and the NUS. These would be straightforwardly positive moves.

An oddity here is the SNP’s description of this as saving low earners at least £180 a year. For low earners just over the current threshold of £17,495 the saving will be much less (e.g. at £18,000 earnings, £500 @ 9p in the pound = £45). But for those close to the proposed new figure of £22,000, the saving will be higher (at £21,500, £4,000 @ 9p in the pound = £360). For everyone earning over £22,000, there’s a short-term saving of c£400 a year. The long-term savings will be greatest for those who are lower life-time earners: others will simply pay off their whole debt as before, but more slowly.  How this has been presented in the manifesto is a small point, but may reveal some perceived need in the party to find something in its student funding policy which can be presented as targeted on poorer people. These  – emphatically – are proportionately the biggest gainers here in the short- and long-term, especially those who are life-time low earners. But they are not the only ones, and the decision not to identify the benefit to a larger group is worth noticing.

FE

The NUS has been campaigning hard on better support for students in FE and this is reflected in many of the manifestos.  The one to watch here is whether the SNP’s interest in making HE and FE student support more similar implies introducing loans into the system for FE students.  It is difficult to see any other way of increasing FE students’ total support which could be affordable. But that would almost certainly mean that the Scottish student loan book became even more inequitably distributed by income.  One to watch.

Commission on Widening Access

The COWA proposals appear to have received a fair amount of cross-party endorsement, although they are not much discussed in detail. A Commissioner for Widening Access, ambitious targets (how achievable is a different issue) and a different entrance threshold for some students all seem likely to be on the way.

The Greens

The Greens are worth a specific mention because to this reader their manifesto was surprisingly thin on student funding (but you can judge for yourself: page 10 here), for a party making a strong general pitch to students. Like some other parties, it offers general support for the NUS Scotland election campaign  and the Commission on Widening Access proposals: but more than others it seems to rest its case on that. In particular, of the parties likeliest to be in a position to offer parliamentary opposition to an expected SNP government, the Scottish Greens  are alone in saying nothing about the need to restore or improve student grant specifically, maintaining a lack of interest in this particular issue which continues to position them very differently from their counterparts at Westminster (see here). They also have no position in their manifesto on the detail of the loan scheme (or even indeed free tuition, although their support for that can be assumed from statements elsewhere).

Missing issues

A couple of issues which have not been picked up are worth mentioning.The total number of places in HE and total university funding are on no-one’s agenda, other than the Conservatives, who would use some of the proceeds of their proposed graduate contribution to make more places available [Update:  I initially missed a promise by the Greens to “create more opportunities for everyone who wants to gain a place at college or university”, which seems to imply extra places.]. There’s every sign that just as squeezing grant was seen as the acceptable way to help balance the books in the last parliament, university funding (at  minimum, not increasing it in line with rising demand for places, and with pressure to improve access) is seen as the soft target for 2016 to 2021.  There’s some tricky stuff lurking in that particular woodshed in the years ahead, unless we accept that around one-third of applicants – the proportion rejected last year – were fundamentally misguided about their “ability to learn”.

Related to that, getting no-one’s sympathy at all are those who leave Scotland to study. No party shows any interest in following the Welsh model of a portable fee grant (even though the SNP suggests funding should be blind as to where students study – but that seems to be in the context of FE vs HE level courses). But this has potential to become a harder issue for the politicians to avoid as the competition for places here tightens.

Also related to that, the length of time students spend getting a degree does not get mentioned, whether the lack of alternatives to 4 year honours courses, or the number of students moving from HN to degree programmes who are expected to repeat one or more years, leading to 5 or 6 year programmes. The time taken to get through the system  matters increasingly when the number of opportunities to do so is falling behind demand, with limited non-repayable living cost support at low incomes.  Other groups not meriting mention are those part-timers excluded from free tuition by mean-testing and postgraduates (excepting a reference in the SNP manifesto which as drafted describes what already happens).

Final comments

On the basis of these documents, there’s much more to be written  about what the next five years could hold for student funding in Scotland (and university funding too). But that will have to wait. The immediate observation to be made is that, with considerable help from the Commission on Widening Access and the NUS, the parties have collectively put forward a wider-ranging set of ideas in this area than we have seen for a while. There’s also quite a bit of cross-party agreement – though sometimes at a general   rhetorical level that could quickly break down when confronted with choices about translation into practice. How, and how far, all this will translate into actual changes, and what trade-offs will be made in the process, will of course be the interesting thing to watch.

 

 Footnote

For the table, I have generally kept to the manifestos and not attempted to track all the various additional comments made in interviews, leaders’ debates or reported from hustings. The only exception to this is RISE, which issued a further detailed education document a few days after their manifesto, which I have included as it is the only place  mature students get a mention.

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