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The mystery of Scotland’s disappearing low income students

October 26, 2016

The Scottish Government published its annual student support statistics yesterday, covering 2015-16. Link here: http://www.saas.gov.uk/_forms/statistics_1516.pdf.

Some things were predictable: the highest loans are still being taken out by those from the lowest incomes (Table A6), reflecting the limited amount of non-repayable grant (bursary) now available to these students.

More unexpected was the further fall in the number of students receiving a means-tested grant, either Young Students Bursary or Independent Students Bursary.

The table below shows how numbers on income-related maintenance grants have changed since 2012-13. In 2013, grant levels were reduced and means-tested grants were substantially restructured, from four schemes to two. However, the old schemes were rolled into the new ones, so it makes sense to include that year as a starting point for comparing effects.

2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16
All 51,515
YSB 33,150 32,310 30,480
ISB 17,400 16,985 16,135
Total 51,515 50,550 49,295 46,615
Year-year change -1.87% -2.48% -5.44%
Change over period -9.51%

Correction: this post originally had an error in the bottom line of the table, repeated in the  text, which gave -10.51% as the total change.  That is now corrected. Other figures for year-on-year change are right.

A 9.5% drop in grant recipients over three years is pretty remarkable and certainly wasn’t predicted by the government when it launched the 2013 reforms. Since 2012-13 the number of Scottish domiciled students supported by SAAS has increased by 3.5% (Table  A2).

The drop in numbers receiving income-related maintenance grant has been especially large this year.

The SG may be aware of an essentially technical explanation for this downwards trend, but if so it is not sharing it.  Asked about these figures yesterday, the Minister for Further and Higher Education reportedly only “replied that 126,000 full time students were receiving support from the government”, leaving the specific fall in those from lower incomes unacknowledged.

Assuming this is a real effect, in the absence of any explanation otherwise, logically one or more of the following must apply:

  • low-income students are becoming less likely to be recruited relative to others; and/or
  • they are becoming less likely to declare their low-income status; and/or
  • they are becoming less likely to claim grant.

Other data has shown increases in the numbers entering HE from more disadvantaged postcodes (SIMD 1 and SIMD2, the most deprived 40% of areas and target of access policy). So if it were the first point above, that would suggest that it’s possible to increase entry from SIMD 1 and 2, while still reducing those in the system from low incomes.  That seems possible, as the link between low-income and SIMD is far from cast-iron.  So it is possible that as widening access policy concentrates on SIMD 1 and 2,  some of those benefitting are not from households with  low enough incomes to receive a grant, while students from low income families in SIMDs 3 to 5 are now not doing so well relative to others.  That’s no more than a theory – but one suggesting these figures are worth some attention from the Commissioner for Widening Access, whose appointment is due any time now.

If the second two points are relevant, then it’s possible that the amounts of cash support available at low incomes have now fallen so low that some low-income students don’t think it’s worth asking their families to go through the means-test to get them. Bear in mind that the grant at incomes between £24,000 and £33,999 is £500 (for the year).  Those students averse to taking out any debt  (around 20-25% of those at low incomes) won’t benefit from the higher loan they could get by submitting income details: maybe some don’t see the grant alone as worth all the complication.  The fall in bursary recipients has – interestingly – been steepest in the £24,000 to £33,999 band; it’s been next-sharpest in the nil income group (mainly mature students entitled to £875 pa).

So the SG may have inadvertently set up a live experiment into how low non-repayable means-tested student support has to go, before claimants are put off applying. If that’s part of the explanation for these numbers, then that figure seems to be somewhere around £1,000.

The possibility that the SG has managed to cut grants so hard that some people are put off claiming them should certainly be on the agenda of the review of student funding announced today. More generally, what’s driving the fall in YSB and ISB numbers since the system was reformed should be of central interest  – however uncomfortable that may be for the Scottish Government or for NUS Scotland, which strongly supported the changes.

As further context, no other part of the UK has seen this steady fall in grant recipients since 2012-13 (Wales has seen a steady rise, NI and England have been more up and down – but not so down overall: see here) [Update: more on UK comparisons, following the publication of updated data here.]

It was already known that a pretty substantial minority of low-income Scottish students rejected the SG/NUS assumption that they would happily borrow to make up grant cuts (see here). Today’s figures raise the further possibility that if means-tested grants are reduced to a low enough level, even those may be rejected. It may turn out that a low-grant/high loan package simply does not work  at all, in any of its elements, for some of those who need it most. At the very least,  the hyping in 2012 of a new of “minimum income” which would benefit all low-income students looks increasingly to have been based on a shoogly set of assumptions about how quite a few of its target audience would respond.  Let’s hope the new review can do better.

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