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An old government spin line comes out of retirement

November 19, 2017

The Scottish government’s review of student support will be published tomorrow.  Once the full report is available, it will be possible to analyse its proposals. This post only considers the spin being put on it today.

Today’s coverage: “best in UK” klaxon

Two papers have been given advance briefing about the report: the Sunday Times and the Sunday Herald (which labels it an “exclusive”).

The headline story in both is that all students in FE and HE will receive £8,100 of living cost support, composed of an unspecified mix of loan and grant which will left to Ministers to decide.  A “source” from the review is quoted in both papers as saying

Establishing a minimum student income would be a huge step forward and taken together our recommendations amount to the best student support package that would be available in the UK.

Long time observers of the Scottish Government’s handling of student support announcements will recognise the “best in UK” claim. It was the centrepiece of the SG’s August 2012 announcement, which managed not to mention at all that its plans included a £35m (30%) pa cut in spending in student grants.  In 2012, the basis for the favourable comparison was nowhere stated, or teased out by the media at the time. It was nevertheless reported widely: the “best in UK” headline appeared widely across the press unchallenged.

It was digging into this claim out of straightforward curiosity which accidentally set me off towards a new career as a specialist in comparative cross-UK student finance. My conclusion in that earlier work was:

no one system can be claimed as best in the UK, other than subjectively and on the basis of partial comparisons.

This remains true.

So seeing this line  was like meeting an old friend.  But in a rather surprising context, because this time it is not the SG briefing, but what the SG has officially labelled its “independent review of student support” (emphasis added).

Further, an “exclusive” Sunday briefing before a Monday launch is a longstanding professional PR tactic. Its aim is to manage coverage, by slipping out some conclusions ahead of the rest, accompanied by the preferred interpretation. It means initial reactions are based on imperfect information, selected for maximum favourable impact, plus spin which may go beyond what is actually in the report.  It also means that if the full story raises more difficult questions, by the time these emerge, it is old news, editors are more likely to spike coverage and thus criticisms are slightly less likely to get publicity. It was an unexpected tactic for an impartial independent review to adopt.

A partial claim?

“Best in the UK” is a surprising claim for an independent review to fasten on not only because of its resonant and not entirely respectable recent history as a Scottish government spin line, but because it’s unavoidably a subjective claim. There are a broad range of aspects of student funding systems you might compare, including:

  • how much students get to live on at the lowest incomes
  • how tightly “lowest income” is defined
  • how much students get at all other incomes
  • how that varies according to whether you live at home or away
  • how much of that has to be borrowed
  • which categories of students are in and out of scope
  • what final debt is at different incomes
  • who ends up with the most debt
  • the terms of your loan scheme
  • etc

There is no scheme which is “best” at all this as of today. The review proposals as revealed so far will not alter that fact.

Most obviously, from next year (the soonest any new Scottish proposals could come in), Welsh students living away from home will be able to claim £9,000 a year  (£11,250 in London), £900 more a year than the Scottish review proposes: more here.  Moreover, all but £900, ie. £8,100 [NB correction from initial post, which stated the whole amount would be grant] of Welsh living cost support will be provided entirely as non-repayable grant at the lowest incomes, and grant will be worth multiple thousands much further up the income scale, with everyone getting at least £1,000.  The Scottish review, we are, told, will leave the Scottish government to choose the grant/loan split.  The arrangements in Wales will also cover part-time students pro rata: minutes of review meetings suggest it has only looked at full-timers. In Wales,  borrowing is and will remain skewed away from those from the lowest incomes: in Scotland the way is being left open for the opposite to continue.  I recently heard the relevant Minister from Wales claiming Wales would have (wait for it) the best system in the UK, even after allowing that students will have to borrow up to £9,000 for fees alongside.

The point is, that claiming to be “best in the UK” means making judgements about what – and who – matters most.  If an independent review repeats this claim in its report, it needs to spell out precisely the basis for that claim, and justify why it is ignoring or counting as irrelevant certain areas where it does less well.  Otherwise it will sound like no more than the re-run of an old political spin line, which does not belong in this sort of document. And if someone has spun a line ahead of publication which members did not agree to include in the report, that would raise a different question, about who is in control of the review.

Who’s briefing?

It’s in the nature of this sort of story that the source is left vague. The Sunday Herald call him or her “a review group source”. the Sunday Times uses “a source from the review”.

We do know however that the review has engaged Charlotte Street Partners to do at least some of its media work.  Invitations to tomorrow’s launch sent to journalists this week came from CSP.  CSP is well-known in Scottish lobbying circles: it is one of the most high profile “strategic communications” firms north of the border .  Specifically the invitations (or at least the one I’ve seen) are from Kevin Pringle.  Pringle’s biography on CSP’s site says:

Kevin Pringle joined us as a Partner in 2015. He is one of our most experienced strategy and communications advisers and has a greater knowledge of Scottish politics than anybody we have ever met. He is widely regarded as one of the most respected strategic communications experts of his generation, having worked in frontline politics for many years, helping steer the SNP successfully from a small opposition party to one of the greatest political success stories of modern times.

Between 2004 and 2006, Kevin earned some valuable private sector experience with Centrica’s Scottish Gas business, before rejoining the SNP’s political machine. Following the 2007 Scottish elections, he was appointed senior special adviser to the first SNP First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond. Kevin went on to become director of strategic communications for the SNP, playing a central role in the cross-party Yes campaign. He is currently a columnist for The Sunday Times in Scotland.

From May 2011 until 31 August 2012 Pringle was the SG special adviser in charge of “strategic communications across all portfolios”, so the 2012 “best in UK” line was first developed, as it happens, on his watch in government.

Engaging Pringle to manage its media relations is without doubt therefore an interesting move by the review. Typically these bodies are supported in their activity by officials seconded from government.  This one has had a more complex support structure – a mixture of civil servants and staff from Virgin Money (a story for a different day), but invitations to the launch to people like me came from a civil service address.  Buying in outside top-end PR help (and as Pringle’s biography shows, you’d struggle go more top end in Scotland than him) specifically to deal with the media is, or used to be, less common for independent advisory bodies.  I don’t think it happened with the recent Commission for Widening Access or with the earlier Cubie Review, for example.

Looking past the spin

The real interest in this review will come with access to its full report tomorrow. From the early briefing, the review will not come out arguing unequivocally for extra investment in grant, but offer government a range of choices, which will include using loan to provide all or most extra support.  There’ll be plenty to discuss, therefore.  Playing games of airy and unexplained one upmanship with other UK nations will, however, be the least interesting way this debate could go, or be covered by the media.  Those seriously interested in the substance of policy-making here in Scotland might instead pay particular, careful attention to how decisions that may be made here would affect Scottish students from lower incomes, and what questions this raises for the continued commitment to sinking £1 billion annually in 100% universal cash subsidies for fees (clue: some loan could be deployed here instead, and cash extracted and used for grants).

In August 2012, Mr Pringle and/or his colleagues successfully obscured substantial grant cuts and debt increases for tens of thousands of students from lower income homes by offering a comfort blanket story of national superiority.  Let’s make the PR people work a bit harder for their money this time.


Footnote:  But … free tuition?

Some people will always feel that any system which is based on free tuition is automatically better than any other.

But on that argument, the review could have recommended the complete annihilation of all living cost support in Scotland and it would still be proposing the “best” system. Clearly (I hope) no-one would believe that.

So we need to get past playing the absence of tuition fee debt as a trump card. It’s something to include in the equation – but how that equation works out, not least across different incomes, then needs working through.

It’s also worth noting that the full comment was “taken together our recommendations amount to the best student support package that would be available in the UK” (emphasis added).  It’s a small point, perhaps, but fee support is specifically outside the review remit. It was not allowed to make recommendations about fees. Thus the source’s own words invite us to compare living cost support packages quite specifically.  So it’s a particularly bold claim, in any world where £9,000 is higher than £8,100.


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