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Student support review #4: the diminishing return(s) of spin

November 22, 2017

“The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons”   Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is how I feel about claims of policy superiority between the different UK nations.

At Monday’s launch of the student support review, in her opening remarks the chair drew attention to criticism of a line run in pre-briefing, that the review proposals would offer the best support for students available in the UK. I presume the criticism in question was mine, here.  She denied its use was inappropriate and repeated the claim on behalf of the review group, saying it would be “the best student package available in the UK”. The claim does not appear in the actual report.

I was kindly given the chance to ask a question, so I asked how they felt the review’s recommended outcome compared specifically with the proposals for Wales, from which their headline suggestion, a flat-rate support entitlement, borrows.

Replying on behalf of the review, Russell Gunson of IPPR Scotland, and previously of NUS Scotland, identified three things which were better. Here is what I noted he mentioned, with some comments:

  • The inclusion of FE students

In Wales, at very low incomes full-time students (unless on EMA) are entitled to a grant of £1,500 and part-timers half of that. The review’s proposals suggest a maximum grant of £4,050 and access to a loan topping the total up to £8,100. The review has however kicked part-time support into the long grass, and over the following day it became clear EMA students were not included in its recommendations (see here): Wales also still has EMA, at the same rate (£30/week). So the Scottish proposals are much better for full-time students in FE who are not on EMA.

  • The loan repayment terms, referring to the interest rate and the threshold

The interest rate on loans in Wales is higher than the Scottish one (though it may not always be by very much, depending on a person’s earnings level and the relationship  at any given time between RPI and the Bank of England base rate: bear with me here). But the Welsh government will continue to write off £1,500 of debt at the start of repayment, which in practice will wipe out much of the effect of the higher interest rate during study, especially for those whose borrowing is kept down by access to a reasonable level of maintenance grant.  Meantime, the threshold is an odd thing to cite.  In Wales, it will be £25,000, from next year, compared to £22,000 in Scotland, from a year which the review does not specify. The Programme for Government suggests it will rise to that level by the end of this parliament. So it’s the interest which is (in most cases) more favourable under the review proposals: the repayment threshold is actually worse.

  • The treatment of those on benefits.

I have to accept this claim at face value. The interaction of benefits and student support is a very specialist topic where I don’t pretend to be able to be able to make comparisons. Let’s assume this claim would withstand further scrutiny. 

To be best in the UK, the package by definition has to be better than the one in Wales. That claim rests on the things in bold above. Not mentioned, but could have been, was the total value of combined bursary and loan support for HE students living at home, which would be £8,100 in Scotland, but will be £7,650 in Wales.

There are areas where the Welsh arrangements will be more favourable, which weren’t mentioned:

The total value of support for those living away from home, who make up the majority of HE students in both nations and who by common agreement face the greatest cost pressures: this will be £9,000 (£11,250 in London) for students from Wales, compared to the review’s £8,100.

The inclusion of part-time students, who will get support pro rata in Wales, but remain unaided for living costs under the review’s package. The review makes general statements about the desirability of funding part-timers, but remits the issue back to the SG and its recommendation’s costing is for full-time students only.

Much (much) greater use of non-repayable means-tested bursary to provide this living cost support in Wales, so that living cost loans will be much lower at low and middle incomes.

The extension to taught post-graduate students in Wales, who will get a similar package to undergraduates, although the implementation of that in full will take longer. The review did not look at taught post-graduates: Scottish ones can now borrow something towards fees and living costs, but the Welsh arrangements for this group will be much better.

The opening video presentation for the launch emphasised the problem of student hardship, i.e. students not having enough to live on. This is also a strong theme in the report. So how systems compare on total living cost support, especially for the people facing the highest costs, feels like it should weigh pretty heavily in any objective comparison, on the review’s own terms.  As might how far that support is offered at low and middle incomes on terms which are more likely to actually be taken up – that is, how much is grant. The Welsh plan is substantially better on both those counts.

The inclusion of full-time non-EMA FE students is balanced by the exclusion of all part-timers, in HE and FE, and post-graduates. I’m going to write elsewhere about specific comparative claims made in the report about the loan scheme, but in brief the interest rate difference does not self-evidently outweigh a £3k difference in the repayment threshold, particularly for low earners.   Clearly, benefit interaction is a very serious issue for those who are affected, and they will tend to be particularly financially vulnerable, but the review does not say what proportion of students are affected by this, or how much money may be involved. I think one, ideally both, figures would have to be reasonably high to justify a claim this mattered more than differences in general support, especially grant support.

What about fees?

The review made its claim specifically about its own proposals, from which fees were excluded. But if fee debt and funding is regarded as relevant then other comparisons would apply.

In Scotland debt for those who study in-country will be lower per annum, which for many people may be the be-all-and-end-all.  However, the difference with Wales will be pretty small at low incomes, and in a few cases the extra year of study in Scotland for an honours degree may more than wipe it out. Those who leave Scotland to study will have higher debt at low and middle incomes, compared to counterparts from Wales, because they will pay the same fees, but get little or no maintenance grant by comparison.

As well as applying to all Welsh students, not only those who stay in-country to study, the Welsh package concentrates non-repayable cash funding far more on those from households with the lowest incomes, protecting them more from debt relative to those from higher income families. That’s only arguably better: it depends on your thinking this matters. But that is the whole point about my complaint about these general comparisons. Perspective matters and needs to be made explicit.

“A” for effort?

The chair also seemed to be offering one further argument for the UK comparative claim, which was to do with how hard the group had

“tried to create the best in Scotland”

The argument sounded to be that in doing the best they could, the group must have come up with the best package in the UK.

If that was the implication, then there’s a huge logical leap. I don’t doubt at all that the review members feel they did the best they could within the terms they were given. When I run in the school parents’ race I try to do the best I can, within my own considerable constraints. It doesn’t mean I win.

In any case, the review itself identifies that there was a better, higher grant, package that is not their recommendation because it was beyond their remit. Moreover, the Diamond review no doubt also felt they did they best they could for Wales. So on this logic theirs must be best in the UK, too.

Best in what way? Best for whom?

It clearly bears repeating that student support systems have many different elements, some of which matter more to some people than others, and which will affect people differently depending on their circumstances. Then there are people like me who worry about system-wide effects, like how students are treated relative to one another. The chance of finding one which is best on every conceivable important measure in most, let alone all, cases is low. No UK scheme achieves that now or in the near future will manage that. Assertions of “bestness” become increasingly meaningless and value-laden, the more general they are.

Even narrowing it down to students from particular backgrounds, it is rare to find a system which is “best” on every obviously important measure.  When I compared UK systems in detail a couple of years ago, there was only one group of students for whom one system came close to being objectively “best”. For students from families earning at least £54,000 who stayed in-country to study, and were not later low earners, Scotland clearly offered the best terms. I think that will remain true under these proposals, but I haven’t re-run the sums.

Conclusion

There was no need to run this line.  There was no need to double-down and repeat it unprompted. It was not included in the report: it appears to have been developed in the final stages of deciding the presentational approach. Student support is not a cross-UK beauty contest or an arms-race: comparisons are enlightening and thought-provoking, but the primary focus should be on the policy choices being made within the boundaries of each home nation, and who benefits (and who does not).

The benefit of a review such as this should be that it lifts the debate above the political stramash which typifies the discussion of student funding in Scotland. It was a chance to concentrate on the mechanics free of the more questionable rhetoric. So it has been simply disappointing to see this highly rhetorical distraction device being brought out again. At least this time, unlike in 2012, it has been possible to test the basis. Readers can judge the answer offered for themselves. To me, it sounded more like an explanation hastily reached for after the line was decided, than the conclusion of a piece of careful analysis and deliberation, from which the line was drawn.

I think the review is a little diminished by its association with this claim. It was so central to the line run by the government, and echoed by NUS, in 2012 that it is hard to believe it has appeared spontaneously. In any event, its use was ill-advised. There’s nothing wrong with any review trying to get the most favourable hearing it can, for all the hard work it has done.  It may even sometimes be judged that that requires paying for professional PR advice, as is happening here (two senior partners of Charlotte Street Partners, Kevin Pringle and Andrew Wilson, were present at the launch).  But for an exercise like this, there’s no price that can be put on being perceived to be above spin.

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