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HE students in colleges: the net impact of fee and grant policy since 2007

In response to some challenging statistics from UCAS on inequality in access to HE, the Scottish Government has  recently been keen to stress the important contribution of college-level HE to widening opportunities for access.

The recent Sutton Trust report (which prompted much of this reaction – I was a co-author) looks in some detail at college-level entry. The Scottish Government has taken to saying that the report is silent on this point, even though the whole of Section 4 analyses in detail the components of the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate, which takes in college as well as university HE. (See here.) The report identifies there and elsewhere  that relying too much on college entry to boost participation by the most disadvantaged raises its own equality questions.

The purpose of this post is not to go over those parts of the report.

I want instead to wonder why, if college-level HE is understood to be integral to widening participation, HN students have seen no gain at all from changes to fee policy, but have had to take the full hit on cuts to their grants? 

When the SG says that it brought in free tuition, it is referring to the abolition of the graduate endowment in 2007, which saved the students affected a bit under £3,000 at current prices.  However, almost half of undergraduate students in HE were already exempt from the graduate endowment – including all those on HN-level courses, as well as those who moved from an HN course to a university degree and took less than two years to complete that: see para 3 here.

So these students all saw no benefit from the endowment’s abolition. Those at lower incomes have however been affected by cuts to student bursary.

I have previously estimated  the real terms  value of changes to student funding between 2006-07 and 2014-15  by household income:  Figures 19 and 20 here (worth a general look, if you are interested more generally in re-distributive effect of policy in Scotland).

For those on one year HN courses, the total real terms loss in support was between just over £1,000 and £2,000 for those at the lowest incomes; and double that for those on a two-year HND.  

These students have seen the largest losses in cash support of any group per year of study: low-income young degree students were still net losers, but at least saw some benefit from the endowment’s abolition, while mature students saw a new grant introduced in 2010 (albeit that was later reduced).

The restoration (almost) of the threshold for maximum support from this autumn (to £18,999, from £16,999 – in 2012/13 it was £19,300) and the addition of £125 to YSB for those on incomes below £24,000 will  have softened this effect a little,  though the £125’s value would be off-set by inflation, if I did this again.

The only benefit offered to these students has been the opportunity to borrow more in total towards for their living costs (the “minimum income guarantee”): how far they have done so in practice is not clear.

My point is simply this – this has been a funny way for the government to show how much it values a group of students now regarded as central to the narrative on its record on widening access.



FMQs update: +10% = 1.4% (probably, not -1.7%)

Update 17:15 12 June:  Further digging in the newest UCAS numbers suggests that steps have already been taken in those to take into account the “UHI effect”, so that the further adjustment below isn’t needed to get a like-for-like effect. That’s because UCAS also excluded  category called “RPA” from the new data, which produces an adjustment which turns out to deal with the UHI dip almost exactly.

In that case, “all age” entrants for SIMD Q1 Scots in Scotland do after all see a rise, but of 1.4% (55/4020) not 10%. That still relies on all of any increase reported for SRUC being real, not administrative (see below). Non-18 years old go up by a more positive 5.4%, rather than 0.9%.

But the age 18 figures still drop by 7.5%. The analysis below did not make any further adjustment for those and used the new UCAS figures as presented.

The total like-for-like rise across all Scottish domiciles of all backgrounds in Scotland shown in the new UCAS figures is 2% (595/27,770).

However, if these figures do include all of the increase of 445 for SRUC,  which more than doubled its reported entrants from 335 to 780, then that would be doing most of the work here: in that case, the rest of the sector would have seen a like-for-like increase of around 0.5% in entrants.

Greater transparency and detail about issues affecting comparability over time when these numbers are published in the first place, and in any subsequent analyses, would really help here.

Meanwhile, I’ve corrected my initial mis-reading. Over to the SG to correct its rather larger one …

Original post below

The post linked here drew attention to a wrong reading of UCAS data by the First Minister at last week’s FMQs.  It explained why the increase in the numbers going to university in Scotland from the most deprived areas between 2014 and 2015 was likely to be well below the 10% quoted.  Some further data released by UCAS yesterday, plus a more detailed reading of the data already released, makes it possible to be more specific.  There was in fact a slight fall in the numbers.

The problem with the 10% is that, as both UCAS and the SG have both previously flagged up,  it includes the effect of things which have nothing to do with changes in actual student numbers. One is the switching of initial teacher training in Scotland into the main UCAS scheme (it was not counted in these numbers before); the other is the apparent one-off omission by unnamed institutions (it turns out to be due mainly to one) to record most of those admitted later in the process, in 2014 only.

UCAS have just put out some supplementary information which shows how the acceptance figures look if initial undergraduate teacher training (UTT) is removed from them, for each SIMD (deprivation)  quintile – giving the true underlying pattern, and incidentally also putting the figures on the same basis as those for the other UK nations, which continue to use a separate scheme for UTT.

Separately, a careful look at the detailed information provided for individual institutions reveals that the institution whose figures dipped spectacularly in 2014 was the University of the Highlands and Islands. Again, it is now possible to show how that affected each SIMD quintile (see table below).

Putting all this together confirms that these effects had little impact on 18 year olds in SIMD1 (the most deprived 20%). For them, a like-for-like comparison shows there was a 7.5% fall in the numbers entering via UCAS, a small change from the 6.9%  fall the original UCAS figures showed.

This is five times the general fall in the age group  (-1.6%) and really shouldn’t be quickly dismissed with references to other age groups, college entry etc –  on any reading, this is a significant fall in the number of 18 year olds from the most deprived  areas who were able to take advantage of the most direct route to university between 2014 and 2015. It needs noticing and understanding, not downplaying.

Moreover, as predicted, there is a very significant effect when the “all age” figures are looked at. The 10% increase becomes a 1.7% like-for-like drop.

UCAS has previously suggested that there was a small increase in total main scheme acceptances for Scots, even after allowing for the two effects above (which they estimated accounted for four-fifths of acceptances). This seems to be explained by the 150 more Scots who went to other parts of the UK, plus two Scottish institutions not included in the latest numbers. Both of these saw some increase in Scots admitted: Glasgow School of Art (195, up from 185) and particularly Scotland’s Rural College (780, up from 335 – although there was only an increase of 50 in the College’s SFC funded places between the two years, so it is possible most of this increase reflects another administrative change, rather than an actual growth in numbers – that needs more explanation).

As the table below shows, there is a little  bit of better news if only those not aged 18 are considered. There was a slight like-for-like rise in the number  of non-18 year old SIMD1 students entering through UCAS, of just under 1%.  But it wasn’t enough to off-set the larger fall in 18 year olds.

Technical note

The table below shows the calculations.

Scotland: SIMD 1 (most deprived 20%), excluding UTT

2014 2015 Change Of which UHI data correction Net like for like change % like for like change
18 1265 1170 -95 0 -95 -7.5%
Rest 2755 2905 150 125 25 0.9%
All ages 4020 4075 55 125 -70 -1.7%

2014 and 2015 figures for age 18 and “all ages” from here. Change  and “not 18” calculated from these.

UHI data correction estimated from university-level report here , Table P.25

UHI: Scottish domiciled, all placed applicants, all ages, all quintiles

2012 2013 2014 2015
All SIMD quintiles, all ages 2030 2290 615 2525
Change from previous year 260 -1675 1910

UHI: Scottish domiciled, all placed applicants, Quintile 1

2012 2013 2014 2015 Change 2014-15
165 240 60 205 145

The simplest assumption to make is that the 2014 figure was under-declared by 145 (180 could be used, based on a comparison with 2013, but that year is unusually high). However, this number will include some new UTT cases as well (probably around 20, based on looking at the total increase in UTT at UHI of 210 – see here – and working out that around 10% of the UTT intake is SIMD1, by comparing the figures with and without UTT).  To avoid double-counting these, 145 has been reduced to 125. (None of this appears to affect 18 year olds.)

This means the increase of 55 shown in the  new figures needs reducing further, by 125,before the figures are like-for-like, giving a reduction of 70.

By excluding the UTT numbers, any real growth in those numbers is excluded too, so there may have been some genuine increase in SIMD1 due to that, but I can’t see a reliable way to identify that from the available numbers and there’s no obvious evidence at first sight of any substantial growth in UTT.

Conversely, the University of the West of Scotland also saw a noticeable dip in 2014, but it was smaller (3680/3255/3905) and the pattern for Q1 is different (900/940/1065), so none of the UWS Q1 increase between 2014 and 2015 has been treated here as due to changes in recording practice – but it is possible some of it may be.









FMQs: 10% that’s not 10%

In a discussion of some new figures out today from UCAS (full of interesting things and worth their own separate piece), the First Minister reportedly said earlier (according to the BBC):

The more fundamental point is that not everyone who goes to university goes at 18, so when you look at the figures for people of all ages, the numbers from the most deprived areas both applying to and being accepted to university is up in 2015 compared to 2014, in both cases by about 10%.
This is a problematic representation of the figures. Back in January 2015, discussing the emerging application numbers for 2015, in its “Notes to Editors”  the Scottish Government’s commendably clear and accurate  press notice   explained that:
Today’s UCAS publication suggests a 10 per cent rise in Scots-domiciled applications. However, much of the rise is due to the inclusion of teacher training courses at Scottish universities in the UCAS undergraduate scheme for the first time this year. The comparable year-on-year figure is a rise of one per cent as per the figures noted above.
The UCAS End of Cycle Report 2015, published after the whole process was complete, added at page 26:
In 2014, there were fewer late acceptances to Scotland recorded in the UCAS data for some Scottish providers, meaning that comparing acceptances with 2014 may not give an accurate measure of change. Also, a large set of teacher training courses at providers in Scotland were recruited through the UCAS Undergraduate scheme for the first time in 2015, having previously been recruited through UCAS Teacher Training. These two factors are estimated to account for around 3,800 of the 4,400 increase in acceptances to providers in Scotland in 2015 compared with 2014.

The UCAS figures above turn a reported 10.4% increase in acceptances into one of 1.4%.

Today’s  UCAS figures show  at age 18 a fall of 3% in the numbers applying in SIMD1 (most deprived 20%) and a rise in the other 4 quintiles. Acceptances have fallen by 7% for 18 year olds from the most deprived 20% [correction to earlier version, which said they were down for all quintiles – they are up for the other 4]. The number of 18 year olds in Scotland will have fallen by around 1.6% over the period, by way of important context.

But there are increases in applicants and acceptances across all of the SIMD groups when all ages are taken into account.  The teacher training and late acceptance issues identified by UCAS are disproportionately relevant to older groups. It is beyond reasonable doubt that the large increases seen in the all-age data, in all groups, will be driven heavily  by these data issues, and not by real change on the ground.

To suggest therefore that there was a 10% increase in 2015 in the numbers applying and accepted from the most deprived backgrounds, once all ages are taken into account,  gives a misleading impression.  The like-for-like story, even once all ages are taken into account, will be quite different.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell on a quick check , UCAS has not repeated its warning about 2014 to 2015 comparability for Scotland in its latest publication – yet it’s a very significant point, and at least as relevant as some other comparability issues UCAS flags up. It looks possible that whoever constructed the FM’s brief may have come a cropper over this.

It’s my guess  therefore that the arcane-sounding, but fundamentally important, issues affecting data comparability may not have been drawn to the FM’s attention. But someone really should now, and to the Parliament and media, before this reading of the data acquires any currency. Because the last thing we need is reasons to downplay challenging numbers, when they are more likely than not to be telling us something important.

Cometh the hour … cometh the ideas?

There’s general agreement that appointing John Swinney as Cabinet Secretary for Education is a sign of how seriously Nicola Sturgeon is taking education. The Scotsman described him as being appointed to “fix” the education system, invoking images of Swinney with his head under the bonnet wielding a wrench. Or perhaps shaking a wrench threateningly in the direction of local authorities, which was more James McEnaney’s interpretation on CommonSpace.  Certainly, COSLA doesn’t appear at first sight to have joined others in formally welcoming his appointment.

Education produces a forest of statistics, often open to multiple interpretation, sometimes legitimately, sometimes less so. It’s likely one early impact of Swinney’s appointment will be a much stronger focus on using numbers to make the most presentable case – though with the added challenge that it can’t be too good, given improvement needs to be demonstrable in a few years’ time.   Swinney has a track record of vigorously defending contested figures against all comers.  The opposition is likely to be kept busy policing the way numbers are used to defend  policy on education.

So the new appointee will certainly make a difference to the presentation, with a more confident style than his predecessor and greater willingness to face down critics both likely. But the thought that one person can “fix” the education system suffers from a major flaw. It’s not people – however heavyweight and long-serving – alone that bring about major change. It’s people armed with ideas.

The distinguishing feature of serially-reforming England has been ideas – lots of them. It could be argued that English education has suffered from a surfeit of ideas  over recent decades, often running contrary to the instincts of many in the teaching profession and remaining hugely controversial.  But interventions with an ideological drive have, without doubt, resulted in change. In England, there was an open desire to reduce the role of local planning and make the system more led by parental choice,  based on a preference for markets over state planning as a mechanism for creating efficient systems, and a more nakedly political desire to reduce council powers.  It was matched with distrust of teachers, leading to more dictation about what was actually taught and (because market models were only trusted up to a point) interventionist powers for “failing schools”.

Scottish education reform has, by contrast, tended to be more about brokered change – not free of ideology, but the ideology more professional than political, and generally more open to variable interpretation locally.  It’s been a  more cautious, managerialist, less confrontational approach.  Many have welcomed the contrast with England.  It has not required politicians to come into office with big ideas about how the system needs to change – if anything, they have been praised for not doing so.

The framing of education now as a problem, the talk of radical change to close the gap in attainment between  pupils from different backgrounds, and the parachuting in of the Deputy First Minister, does not fit that model so well. It implies something other than cautious managerialism is the intention for the next five years.  But it’s less clear what ideas the government brings that will underpin its reforms.

In the SNP manifesto, there were references to greater local discretion on the one hand and more regionalisation on the other, and of course standardised testing.   However, exactly what new, transformational mechanisms such moves are expected to unleash remains unclear.  Does the party believe more choice for parents is a stimulus for change, or  more variety in the available models, or more direct local accountability to parents, or more planning over a wider area, or less variation between what’s available across Scotland, or more local professional discretion, or more intervention, at least in certain schools, or a different distribution of funding, or more economies of scale in support services, or less involvement by councillors, or something else, and for any of these, why is that, and which matter most? What does it make of the absolutely separate organisation of the education of the wealthiest suburbs of Glasgow, East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire, carefully arranged by the Conservative government of 1992? Bearsden Academy (1 or more highers in 2014 = 86%) and Drumchapel High School (1 or more highers in 2015 = 15%) are less than 2.5 miles apart. Their staff work for different employers. There is nowhere you can go to compare  easily how much public funding they get per pupil, and it is no-one’s job to think about that, or about how the two interact (or, whisper it, their catchment boundaries). Is that regarded as a problem, or not?

The manifesto was both vague about precise intentions, and even vaguer about exactly how the party believes the levers and cogs of change could be better engaged than they have been to date, by doing any of the things it suggests.  Its presentation has not got far beyond the “something must be done, this is something” stage.

But if you don’t have an idea about why particular changes will achieve the effect you are after, the risk is of upheaval without improvement. There’s no guide to the massive number of important practical choices that lie behind any general plan. You don’t know which battles are important and which can be more readily conceded, what to prioritise over what.  Critically, as implementation  moves from the Cabinet table, to month after  month of civil service  submissions, to the legal draftsmen, to the Parliament, to budget discussions, to working groups, to agencies, and then to the people in charge of implementation locally, neither does anyone else.

Whatever your political position, the right thing is to want the Scottish Government to succeed over the next five years in improving the educational experience of all young people, but particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

We have the big man. What are his big ideas?

The Holyrood class of 2016: some evidence that not all HE is equal

[Note updated with new info 25 May and 4 August]

I’ve recently been doing some work with colleagues at Edinburgh University unpicking various statistics on access to HE in Scotland (we’ll be discussing the results  at this event  A theme which emerges – it’s not a new one –  is how far it matters what sort of higher education a person gets – college or university, newer university  or older?

With that all in my head, I wondered about the Holyrood class of 2016. There’s no threshold qualification for being an MSP. The skills required are varied.  We need some policy wonks, but we also need people with very high levels of empathy, and a wide mix of experience and general political skills, of the admirable and less admirable types, should count too.  So the range of educational backgrounds our MSPs have is a small, but I’ll argue meaningful, window on how far we can treat all higher education as the same.

For speed, I limited the analysis to new members, using this Scotsman piece as a guide to who they are. There’s no attempt here to compare with the ones who have gone, or the returners.  According to this piece, there are 45 new MSPs.  23 are Conservative, 15 SNP, 4 Labour, 2 Green and 1 Liberal Democrat.  To find information about them I googled various combinations of their name, party and the word “biography”, but I never went past page 2 of the results.  So there may well still be information out there for the three [originally five, grateful to readers for helping find two of them] for whom I couldn’t find any clues about their post school education. That left 42 who provided enough post-school information to be useful.

Of these:

19 attended an ancient university in Scotland or Russell Group university in England (4 Glasgow, 5 Aberdeen, 3 Edinburgh (though one part-time), 1 St Andrews,  1 part St Andrews/part Edinburgh, 1 Oxford, 1 Cambridge, 1 UEA, 1 Newcastle, 1 York and then Edinburgh). 1 more attended Edinburgh, after attending a pre-1992.

4 attended a pre-1992 university in Scotland (3 Strathclyde, 1 Dundee), though Ross Greer MSP (Green) appears to have left his course early, to work as a campaigner. 1 more went on to Strathclyde after attending an ancient.

2 attended a post-1992 Scottish university (1 RGU, 1 Glasgow College of Technology – the old name for GCU).

2 attended a non-Russell Group university elsewhere in the UK (Harper Adams, Keele).

3 have been in professions which strongly imply university attendance (clinical pharmacist, teacher, economist).

2 have been to an FE college (one in the Greenock/Inverclyde, one Sabhal Mor Ostaig), where they may have undertaken either FE or HE-level (e.g. HN) study. I’m assuming attendance at Sabhal Mor Ostaig before it became part of UHI.

4 more have been in professions which imply some post-school education but not necessarily at university (2 nurses of long-standing: nursing has only become all degree level relatively recently), a surveyor and a chartered accountant.

6 declared no post-school education and have past working lives which wouldn’t have required it.

I make that 30 university graduates at least out of 42 cases with some known background (19 of them at least from a Russell Group or ancient university, although the one part-time Edinburgh student is by a non-traditional route) and only 2/42 from an FE college. FE college participation is well above 2/29ths of post-school activity.

It’s this sort of thing that makes me unwilling to be too relaxed about how much the Scottish system relies on HE participation in FE colleges to  provide access to higher education for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.  It will get you so far. But not (often) as far as the Scottish Parliament.


The 6 new MSPs who seem likely to have no mention of post-school education because they did not attend college or university are all from the Conservative Party. The Liberal Democrats, Greens, Labour and SNP appear to have closed their ranks more (in practice, I don’t suggest it’s a policy) against admitting non-graduates to the higher levels of elected office. I’m a graduate, and I can come up with all sorts of reasons why graduates might make good elected representatives. Graduates can of course also come from all sorts of homes. But even for viewers in Scotland, in practice they tend to be from less challenging backgrounds, with those from Russell Group universities, again even here in Scotland, tending to come from a narrower range than graduates in general.

At this point, those MSPs who can will no doubt point to having started from working class homes, but I’m not sure that’s quite answer enough. As Lynsey Hanley has lately argued, the act of going to university doesn’t leave people unchanged.  Plus “working class” itself covers a very broad range of backgrounds, particularly in a country where I can’t recall ever hearing anyone describe their family as lower middle-class.  Working class in Scotland is often used to describe families with incomes well over the national average.  It stands for many as state of mind, attitude or identity, rather than a description of their recent personal economic experience. For others however economic disadvantage remains exactly that.

A parliament drawn so heavily from those who have been to university at its worst risks thinking and behaving like the sort of complacent new and not-so-new middle class meritocracy against which Michael Young warned. In this, Holyrood is no doubt like legislatures round the world.  I’d say they all need to start thinking seriously about how the voices of those who have not been through the university mill are heard nationally direct in the democratic process. Electing more of them would be the obvious one, but it’ll be a rarely talented or fortunate person who manages that now on anything less than a university degree, preferably from one of our more selective establishments.


The numbers above come from the information summarised in the tables below. Apologies to anyone the spelling of whose name has got mangled in the translation from my hand-written notes.

Conservative University  or degree specified (11)
Oliver Mundell Edinburgh
Gordon Lindhurst Edinburgh
Finlay Carson Aberdeen
Ross Thomson Aberdeen
Dean Lockhart Glasgow
Adam Tompkins University of East Anglia/LSE
Donald Cameron Oxford
Jeremy Balfour Edinburgh (part-time/London Bible College
Miles Briggs Robert Gordon University
Rachel Hamilton Harpers Adams University
Maurice Golden Dundee

Alexander Burnett

Liam Kerr




St Andrews/Edinburgh


Other post-school specified (1)
Jamie Greene College in Greenock/Inverclyde
Profession specified which might imply post-school HE (2)
Alison Harris Chartered accountant
Edward Monkton Ex-armed forces, surveyor, farmer


Other profession specified  (6)
Maurice Corry Ex-armed forces
Peter Chapman Farmer/businessman
Graham Simpson “Journalist since leaving school”
Alexander Stewart Worked in retail/own business
Annie Wells Retail manager
Brian Whittle Professional athlete
 No info  (3)
Douglas Ross


SNP University  or degree specified (9)
Gillian Martin Glasgow
Jenny Gilruth Glasgow
Tom Arthur Glasgow
Mairi Evans Aberdeen
Fulton McGregor Strathclyde/Edinburgh
Kate Forbes Cambridge
Ash Denham Keele/OU
Jeanne Freeman Glasgow College of Technology (became Glasgow Caledonian University)
 Ben McPherson  York/Edinburgh
College (1)
Ruth Maguire Sabhal Mor Ostaig
Profession specified which implies university  (1)
Maree Todd Clinical Pharmacist
Profession specified which may imply university (2)
Claire Haughey Mental health nurse
Emma Harper Nurse
No info (2)
Ivan McKee
Rona MacKay
 Daniel Johnson   St Andrews/Strathclyde
Monica Lennon  Strathclyde
Profession specified which implies university  (2)
Colin Smyth   Teacher

Richard Leonard




Andy Wightman (Aberdeen) and Ross Greer, who attended Strathclyde, but left early to become a campaigner.

Lib Dem

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Aberdeen).




The new Education Minister for Scotland: a job description

Any time now, we may know the new Cabinet.  Although in law, ministerial appointments in Scotland have to be approved by the Scottish Parliament, this is a difference from Westminster which, like the absence of an official opposition, is likely to be brushed aside by commentators as a technicality.  They will have a point. Ministerial announcements are political moments. Revelation of the new team will be Sturgeon’s first major act as leader of a minority administration and its presentation will be a significant piece of political theatre.

Centre stage will be the appointment of the new Cabinet Secretary for Education (and other stuff – the chance may be taken to reorganise what’s bundled with what). I shall brutally assume it will be someone new, given the general pasting received by Angela Constance in the press. My observations on her period in office are not all negative: under her tenure, the hyperbole and misdirection which characterised government press notices on higher education  and student funding prior to her arrival melted away, and grants began to creep back up, however slowly. There were signs that, far more than her predecessor, she appreciated that there was much more to do here than smooth the path for the more photogenic end of the school leaving population. It is hard to know what personal impact she had on policy, however, because the First Minister so routinely held smash and grab raids on any major portfolio announcements.

Whoever does the job next will need to be more trusted to take the lead.  Education may be the policy Sturgeon has emphasised as most central to her new administration, but she will be up to her knees in managing a minority administration, and the agenda laid out for schools and the rest is simply too big, complex and risky to be amenable to bouts of occasional remote management. It’s also often vague, as witnessed by reaction to the manifesto commitment on some sort of regionalisation of schools reported here, meaning that it will need a creative mind to work out how, especially in the new political context, the words should be interpreted.

The incoming briefing will  need to cover, among other things:

  • school funding, management and governance, not least what it is that the government is trying to achieve.
  • the introduction of standardised testing (controversial for some, but supported by Labour and Conservatives, so no political excuses can be made for not proceeding).
  • a commitment to a review of student funding to make it “fairer”, particularly between FE and HE  – but with no new money behind it (other parties have also highlighted concerns about student funding – but they all proposed ways to raise cash to address this).
  • appointing a new Commissioner for Widening Access and more generally taking forward the Access Commission report (again, cross- party support exists). It’s worth making the point – because no-one really has – that the access targets set by the Commission are what gets called brave, not to say heroic.
  • the inquiry into historic child abuse, about which victims’ groups have become increasingly critical.
  • implementing the Named Person legislation probably also falls to this portfolio still – there’s a court judgement coming there which has potential to make things either much easier or much harder.

Bubbling away also are workload and stress issues in secondary schools, a regular drip of test and exam results from existing systems (first up, numeracy statistics due on 31 May), the chance of some sort of problem with the operation of the exam system (a known unknown, on past form), the Edinburgh schools issue (not technically the SG’s headache, but impossible to completely ignore) and much more.  The government has so far avoided political pain from the growing failure rate of Scottish applicants for a free university place here, as the system fails to grow in line with rising demand: but that issue is now in opposition sights, and it is not clear what answer the new administration can offer with funding for universities declining, beyond living with this or extra places achieved by diluting funding per student. Only a little breathing space is offered by a temporary dip in the age 18 population.

Whoever gets the Cabinet Secretary post has to be trusted to get on all with all this while knowing when and when not to bother a busy First Minister.  They will ideally be capable of dealing with opposition parties intelligently, tactfully and tactically. The legacy of the brutalist politics of the last 5 years of majority government will need to be overcome: habits of co-operative working and mutual respect have not been much cultivated on the government benches since 2011. The new Minister  will need to have some sort of relationship with local government, which, facing large cuts imposed (again) brutally earlier this year, starts from a position of distrust and very possibly also suspicion about intentions to strip out their schools function. They will be doing all this against a budget which is declining.

The new incumbent will also face – I assume – more effective parliamentary scrutiny. The Education Committee of the past few years has been a pretty supine affair, often failing to hold Minister to account and aided by having among its members the Minister’s parliamentary aide. One did not get the impression that lines of questioning to government always came as a great surprise and one member could always be relied on to ask a version of “why are you so wonderful?”. If the Committee is offered the minister’s aide as a colleague again, I’d suggest it insists at minimum on placing that relationship explicitly on the record, whenever government policy or performance is the topic of discussion. The Westminster Ministerial code (but not the Scottish one) quoted here says:

Parliamentary Private Secretaries should not make statements in the House or put Questions on matters affecting the department with which they are connected. They are not precluded from serving on Select Committees, but they should withdraw from any involvement with inquiries into their appointing Minister’s department, and they should avoid associating themselves with recommendations critical of or embarrassing to the Government. They should also exercise discretion in any speeches or broadcasts outside the House.

The last Committee’s Convenor was a party member (no longer in Parliament –  he was a list member who was not returned) and it was rare for sessions to be typified by the relentless pursuit of issues which might be uncomfortable for the government, although towards the end there were a few exceptions to this. If the Opposition parties do not hold out for the Convenorship of the Education Committee, they will have fallen at an early hurdle.

Who then might be the next Cabinet Secretary?  It will need to be someone with considerable political and policy skills, good judgement, experienced in parliament and in government. The pool won’t be large, simply because the Scottish Parliament and the ministerial team is much smaller than at Westminster. Both junior ministers are back and have avoided much bad press: whether they are regarded as heavyweight enough would be a question. A sideways move from another brief is clearly possible: one commentator at least has speculated about John Swinney (his relationship with local government was rock bottom by the end of the last parliament, which might or might not be relevant).

It seems unlikely to be one of the new faces. Otherwise, we might be looking at Jeanne Freeman (who must at least be in with a good chance of a junior post somewhere in government).  Her CV has given her – uniquely, I’d guess – almost every angle on government:  senior third sector and quango roles, a period as Jack McConnell’s  senior special adviser (during which time – relevant here – she was at the forefront of an ultimately unsuccessful battle to remove criminal justice social work from local authorities and tie it in with the prison service, which ended in the compromise of a new regional co-ordinating tier, shortly to be abolished after ten years in operation) and, missing from the Wikipedia entry here, a period immediately after devolution in 1999 as a senior civil servant, during which she was based in the Education Department, where she led on putting the McCrone deal into place. The last of these adds education to experience in justice and health. In a government not always all that obviously interested in the nuts and bolts end of government, she arrives clutching a bag of spanners. If she ends up in the education team, it shouldn’t be a great surprise – but if as Cabinet Secretary, it will be more of one.

One further appointment to watch will be the special adviser.  Kate Higgins, the previous incumbent, came from a third sector children’s charity background (see here). Given the new centrality of schools policy, it might be expected that some sort of advisory ballast is needed from there, either instead of or as well.

The First Minister will presumably stay close to the education brief. But education policy will also need the full-time attention of someone with a considerable set of political and intellectual skills – not simply to implement the manifesto, but even more crucially, to work out what that manifesto actually means, in the new political context. Who gets that job will be one of the most important decisions of the next few days.


Statistics coming up over next two months

A quick round-up of statistics due to be published between now and the summer relevant to access, participation and funding in HE in Scotland.

Any time soon: Learning for All – Scottish Funding Council

Information on widening access across the University and College sectors in Scotland, thereby supporting SFC’s strategy for widening access.

Last published in March 2015, date currently to be confirmed, but must be likely before the summer.


16 June: Student Loans for Higher Education in Scotland: financial year 2015-16  – Student Loans Company

Figures for Scotland, with parallel publications for the other UK nations, showing how average and total lending has changed over the past year.


14 July: Applicant statistics as of 30 June deadline (all courses)  – UCAS 

Series of detailed analysis tables of applicants at the June deadline covering applicant age, sex, country and subject. An interim release also due on 26 May, but June figures likely to be more reliable.


Looking further ahead:

Annual statistics on student support in Scotland, due in October.


Also of interest for education more generally noted as SG forthcoming publications: see

31 May 2016  Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (Numeracy) 2015.  Information on national performance in numeracy in the broad general education. Also captures teachers views on the implementation of numeracy in CfE.

22 June 2016: Summary Statistics for Attainment, Leaver Destinations and Healthy Living, Summary Statistics for Attainment, Leaver Destinations and Healthy Living No.6: 2016 Edition. A compendium publication with summary information on initial and follow-up destinations of school leavers and their qualifications. Information on school meals and physical education provision is also included in this publication.


What the 2016 manifestos say about student funding in Scotland

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.


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.


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.



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.

Baby Boxes: a post-script

I wrote this post yesterday about the SNP’s announcement that every child in Scotland would have a baby box. I wasn’t necessarily against it, but there was something about the way it was justified that left unanswered questions – especially the way it was being claimed as an efficient way to reduce cot deaths, when these are already very low (around 20 a year).

There was one issue I missed, however.

Late yesterday The Baby Box Co. suddenly re-tweeted something from a discussion between a few (I hope they’ll forgive me this) un-high-profile people in Scotland about the proposal. No hashtags were involved. The company was therefore evidently taking quite a close interest in Scottish twitter activity about this. So I had a look at them.

The Baby Box company (details here) is “headquartered in Los Angeles, California with offices in UK, Australia, Canada, Ukraine, and Singapore.” It “is the first company to offer traditional Baby Boxes to consumers outside of Finland and is proud to share this special, lifesaving tradition with parents worldwide.” Also, “As of January 2016, The Baby Box Co. is working with government agencies, hospitals, tribes and non-profits in 20 U.S. States to distribute Baby Boxes for free to as many American families as possible. The Baby Box Co. also works globally on significant  initiatives; we have programs launching in 12 countries so far.”  They appear to be largely responsible for all the activity reported by the BBC here: If you look carefully, you’ll see many of the sample pictures from projects round the world accompanying the article are supplied by the company.

Boxes typically cost at least $100, pre-shipping, though it also does substantial wholesale discounts.  The company seems to be associated with the sort of strong claim made for an association between boxes and reduced cot death.

There are other companies supplying these boxes, it appears, but according to the BBC article  (and a bit of googling) not many.  The Baby Box Company is the only one I can immediately see who offers wholesale – this Finnish company is much dearer and appears to be retail only. This British one is cheaper, but again seems to operate on a smaller scale. This leaves me wondering: what, if any, commercial marketing activity has been directed at the SNP or the SG?

Yesterday’s post was a slightly baffled attempt to make sense of what seemed an oddly-justified announcement. Today’s is a reminder that just because the product has pictures of giraffes on it, is to do with babies and the idea originates in Finland, doesn’t mean the normal rules of commercial interest can’t still apply, and we shouldn’t ask the usual questions about who stands to profit, as part of understanding the origins and merits of a proposal.

It’s particularly striking that the proposal as reported is straight to a national scheme, not a smaller-scale pilot, as (according to the BBC) is being tried in London. That will immediately limit who can bid to those who can supply tens of thousands of units a year. That would be worth a lot to any organisation. Once it’s a high-profile manifesto commitment for the party which everyone knows is going to win the election, probably with an absolute majority, the course may be pretty much set.

No-one, I want to stress, is being accused here of doing anything wrong. Firms lobby for their products – it’s what they do and it’s normal. Politicians or their advisers  can be genuinely persuaded about a product. But if several million pounds of public money is going to go in this direction rather than any other, and there’s very few organisations, maybe only one, who could fulfill the commitment, I suggest it’ll be particularly important that there’s a bit of boring old cost-benefit analysis before any final decision to proceed is taken and any contract is let, however high-profile the manifesto commitment, particularly when the underlying rationale is, as in this case,  a bit confusing.

Baby boxes – a proposal which brings out best and worst of Scottish politics

There is not an obvious link between the main subject of this site – student support – and baby boxes. But in fact they do connect, via the issues of universalism, opportunity costs, larger needs and untested claims.

Baby boxes have been in the news today, with the SNP’s announcement that all parents of new babies will get a box containing  some new baby essentials, which doubles as a small bed – it will come with a mattress. This is modelled on a Finnish scheme which apparently has run since 1930s, where – the SNP highlight – infant mortality has fallen substantially since its introduction. Cot death is mentioned particularly.  This is being held up as the reason for doing this.

New parenthood can be baffling.  It was also for me the most socially levelling experience since school (and that got increasingly segregated even in a comprehensive, as we progressed up the years).  As a new parent, if you make any use at all of NHS help, ante or post-natal, you are thrown together across age and social boundaries. Keen for any advice you can get on what lies ahead?  Trouble with your baby’s feeding, or sleeping? Hanging around for weighing? Heart-broken by their response to being jagged? Just for a few months, what we had in common was far more important than what made us all different.  The very most vulnerable I probably rarely saw, but otherwise the mothers I mixed with at classes, ward and clinic were a real cross-section. But that relatively unselfconscious mingling doesn’t last forever. Quite fast, you’re less around the system and gradually the old grooves of life reassert.

So I like the idea of reinforcing that commonality for the brief time it exists, and maybe it would be nice to take advantage of the extent to which the political culture here is a bit more comfortable with the idea of celebrating that. New parents already get a box or bag of  bits and pieces for free from a commercial organisation: but some will feel a present from their fellow citizens is a more powerful welcome for their baby.

But I wouldn’t over-claim what it will achieve. Will it reduce cot death? There were (I’m told, but haven’t checked, though it’s consistent with the percentage quoted) 19 cot deaths in Scotland in the most recent year for which we have figures.  Cot deaths have substantially reduced over past decades, in the absence of a national box scheme. The highest risk of cot death is apparently between 2 and 4 months, by which time most babies are likely to have outgrown their box. So if anyone wants to justify this on the basis of reducing infant mortality, it’s fair to ask them to walk us through precisely how they see that working. The article linked further down contains a sceptical assessment from an academic about the link between baby boxes and reducing infant mortality. The initial reporting seemed to take claims about infant mortality effects at face value.

Leave that aside. There may be families who are chaotically unprepared, where this would be a non-stigmatising way of ensuring their baby had somewhere to sleep safely from the start. Good. But if you are a parent who hasn’t managed to organise a basket or cot because you can’t afford it, and can’t borrow one,  or are too fragile or vulnerable, then a short-term sleeping solution and a couple of babygrows is a pretty tiny part of what you and your baby need. If helping this group is the main aim, then what’s the rest of the strategy and how many of them do we think there are?, are important questions. Will we be getting them an actual cot at any point?

This article suggests there may be another aim: to discourage co-sleeping, which many professionals associate with cot death.  This is a very touchy area. If this is an aim the SNP should say so. Is this official policy? How will it be reflected in any assessment made of children’s wellbeing in future? This isn’t a trivial question. Some people may just be planning to co-sleep because they haven’t made alternative arrangements. But some people are very strong advocates of it, and others who have no ideological view, end up doing it, pragmatically. There are people who would contest the scarier statistics, as unduly influenced by casual (for example, drunken) rather than carefully planned co-sleeping arrangements. All I’m arguing for here is overt, not covert, aims, for not patronising people, and treating them with respect. Let’s avoid one of Scotland’s weaknesses, which is for government to function as a partner of professional lobbies (a.k.a. consensus politics with civic Scotland), rather than a broker between these and the sometimes conflicting interests of citizens. The long-standing culture of government here to govern at people, rather than with them, needs to watched for.

What about cost? There are a bit under 60,000 births in Scotland each year:  a figure of around £100 has been suggested per box (though whether this includes the cost of administration and distribution is not clear). So this might come to around £6m, or less if many people turn it down. I suspect some will. Some who have a perfectly good basket etc.  will be charmed by the lovely colourful box, use it as a downstairs baby-stashing spot or leave it at the grandparents.  Others however may well feel that their family’s journey to the point where they can afford, with however much difficulty,  everything new has been hard-fought in this and other generations, and will not be impressed by a suggestion from the government that their baby should sleep in a box. This is not decades-of-collectiveness Finland,  but a country with plenty of confident individual consumers. I was a certain kind of middle-class happy user of hand-me-downs, Oxfam and NCT sales: I met others for whom having the newest and latest really mattered – and it wasn’t always by any means people who were better off than me. The worst case, for the environment at the very least,  is that many people take the box, keep a few bits, but throw much of it away. But still, it’s not a big figure in the grand scheme of the Government accounts and perhaps some commercial sponsorship will creep in to the deal (Bounty may be keen not to lose their whole business model, after all).

And yet … you won’t have to look too hard to find the government excitedly issuing press notices about spending well below this level.  How far would £6m, or event £3m, go in, say, improving mother and baby support for women caught up in the criminal justice system.  Or increasing the availability of post-natal depression support? I just ask.

Also, somewhere in here is something I can’t quite pin down about the displacement of the personal and local. We were lent a moses basket by friends. And then a hammock – which was a bit wild, but worked for a while. It was part of the network of borrowing and lending which at its best makes early parenthood a shared experience beyond your immediate, intense, sleep-deprived world. Will the bottom fall out of that informal market in early baby sleeping kit? It’s not the strongest argument, but there is something important if elusive here. What did I most want the state to do when I had a baby? On reflection, it was to be good at helping quickly when there was an unusual need or things got particularly hard – not to displace the basic, predictable stuff I often enjoyed choosing for myself or being lent by friends.

At its worst, this could therefore be  a tokenistic feel-good universalism giving a warm glow to those not living at the edge, while brushing aside how far we still are from giving vulnerable new mothers and their babies (from all backgrounds) the support they need and diverting resources, however small, from more urgent uses. Or it could be the pursuit of unstated professional agendas about child-care packaged in a pretty box. Or a displacement of more personal, informal sharing.  At best, it’s a relatively cheap and attractive gesture to new parents to reinforce their common experience and a way of helping some very vulnerable people without marking them out. But even then let’s not over-claim what it is likely to achieve in practical terms, or deny there’s a cost or much more substantial things to do. And in all that, it turns out there’s quite a few parallels with student funding.



Note added

Grateful to the ex-pat Finn who cautions me against making generalisations about Finland and adds that in Finland new stuff is much more expensive, so that lending and second-hand is even more significant there than here. In that context,  you can see why giving everyone something new of their own for the stage where children are most likely to grow out of things fast might have particularly widespread appeal.




A framework for reading the manifestos on student funding

The parties’ proposals on student funding are starting to emerge, some in manifestos, some as trails. Manifestos are available for the Greens, Lib Dems, Conservatives, Women’s Equality Party and UKIP. Still to come of the parties represented in the last session at Holyrood are the SNP and Labour, though both have trailed elements of their proposals, Labour in most detail.  The other party getting some coverage whose manifesto is not out yet (I think) is RISE.

I’m about to start looking at what each party is saying about student funding and access to HE.  As I’m not sure how quickly I’ll get round to that, for readers interested in all this here’s a table setting out the issues I’ll be looking for, as a sign of what sort of priorities and understanding each party brings to the debate.  It’s a bit clunky on-line, so it’s attached as a document here:    Policy table SP elections 2016.

The table explains why each item is included, but also includes my best effort at the argument against. Mostly I agree with the arguments in favour (I think that’s allowed, on my own blog).  The counter-arguments have been drawn from things said by Ministers, other discussions I’ve seen or taken part in and occasionally I have added a point which I’ve not heard made but seems an obvious one. In a few cases, I can’t identify a good counter-argument (other than cost, and not even that always).

The table constitutes, I suppose, a sort of manifesto of my own for student support: it mainly summarises issues picked up somewhere on this site. Some of these points are too detailed to make it into any manifesto but are still included in the list just in case. Also, there are various things here that would be good to do in principle, but in reality choices always need to be made.  Clearly no party could therefore realistically be expected to pick up more than a few of these things – but their choices should be revealing, when set against this list.

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

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)


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.

Scottish Conservative plans for a graduate contribution: maths and myths

Note: I have had this piece sitting in draft for a few days.  A Daily Record piece published yesterday appears to clarify a couple of points and those are noted below:  but it also perpetrates one red herring (as predicted below).

The Scottish Conservatives have set out their plans to introduce a graduate contribution/charge/back-door fee (circle according to your rhetorical preference). This notes works through the maths.

Liability and proceeds

The charge would be calculated as £1,500 per year. It would have the same exemptions as the old graduate endowment. So it would not affect part-time students, mature students (age 21 at start of course is the dividing line in most cases), single parents, disabled students, those on PGDE (post-grad teacher training) or – and this is very important – those on HN courses, mainly in FE colleges.

Under the graduate endowment, around 45% of the full-time students receiving funding from SAAS were exempt.  Let’s assume for simplicity that around half would be unaffected by the proposed charge/contribution/backdoor etc. Those liable would be most of the young students on a full-time degree course.

The Conservatives estimate that this would raise around £100m a year.  That looks about right in the long term. There are around 135,000 Scottish and EU SAAS-funded students: 50% of those would be 67,500, which multiplied by £1,500 a year gives roughly £100m.

However, given the way debt has risen for poorer students in recent years as a result of bursary cuts, it would be hard to justify adding to the financial load of those students already affected by those. The Conservatives have previously said that one call on this funding will be to increase bursaries for poorer students.  The percentage of young degree (specifically) students who have been affected by cuts to the  Young Student Bursary is not directly calculable from official statistics. But on a rough guess, it might be up to around one-third. So it’s a reasonable assumption that the first third or so of that £100m would need to be recycled into compensating grant for low-income students, simply to avoid adding further to the larger financial burden they already face as a result of decisions by the out-going Scottish Government.

That would still leave around £65m of net proceeds to make the world a better place.  The Record quotes the Conservatives identifying their scheme as producing £60m for investment in FE, so it looks at first sight as though this may be the sort of underlying calculation.

Income-related repayment

The party has said a loan would be available to cover the immediate costs of the charge. When they talk about people only paying it once incomes reach £20,000, they appear to be referring to the income threshold at which that loan would be repaid. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, student loans currently start to be repayable once income reaches £17,335 income: it’s £21,000 in England or Wales.  If the Conservatives plan on following the precedent set by fee loans to Scottish students going to other parts of the UK, the new loan would be added to students’ other borrowing for living costs (where they have any), implying a general increase in the threshold for all loans.  An increase in the repayment threshold  would be a sensible, progressive move. A higher loan repayment threshold benefits lower earners and is advocated by NUS (Scotland).


On the timing of the income, on which the Record concentrates, there’s one substantial point and one superficially persuasive but disingenuous one, which was often quoted in relation to the graduate endowment. [Note: the Record clarifies the first, but perpetrates the second.]

The substantial timing point is about when the charge is levied.  If it’s payable each year as a student actually studies, it’s not a back-door charge but a straight-through-the-front-door one.  That system means that the proceeds become available to spend earlier. I start my course, pay the charge in cash or take out a loan to pay  (as with existing fees in  rUK) and the face value of it converts into immediate income for whoever I pay it to, whether it’s the university or the Scottish Government.

If, however, it’s levied only once students leave, as the graduate endowment was, then the income takes about 4 years to build up to its full level. Note: The Daily Record appears to have got the Conservatives to clarify that it will be this, with the amount becoming payable in the April after graduation, following exactly the model of the graduate endowment.  As The Record notes, it will be around the time of the next election before those leaving will start to be liable.

So, rather than 67,000ish people paying £1,500 a year, somewhere between one-third and one-quarter of that number will pay either £4,500 or  £6,000 in one go, as the first liable groups start feeding through, depending on whether they have studied for three years or four.  Only by that point will the total amount coming head towards £100m. If everyone is on a 4 year course, the sum is 67,000/4 x £6,000 = £100m and takes 4 years to pull in; if everyone is on three years, it’s 67,000/3 x £4,500 = £100m, and it arrives after 3 years; if it’s a bit of both, it still heads towards the same total, and phases in over 3 to 4 years.

As there is nothing until the first cohort of graduates leave, any new spending contingent on this income has to be delayed, or funded for a while  from elsewhere. The latter is in effect what happened with the graduate endowment, where bursary spending linked to it was introduced in 2001, but the first set of liable students only graduated several years later. The new bursaries were funded by a temporary increase in the relevant budget line.

The argument not to be seduced by here is that because students only pay it back once they are earning, there’s no useful income until graduates hit the repayment threshold. The Record gets in a tangle over this, which completely ignores that the government will have scored the income in its accounts in full as soon as the face value of the initial loan was handed over by the graduate. Loans act as a buffer between government access to spendable cash and the delay in graduates earning a enough to start paying them back. That is their whole point. This is why the Westminster government has been able to largely replace its own direct grants for universities in England with fee loans, without those institutions going bankrupt. This useless-trickle-in argument was used against the graduate endowment, equally misleadingly.

The speed at which individuals pay back their loans in practice will be irrelevant for the speed at which any new funds become available for public spending. Suggesting the money will dribble in at a useless rate (The Record quotes a £200,000 a year in 2021) suggests either a failure on the part of those providing the briefing to the press to understand how the finances work in this area, or a desire to make sure other people don’t. It’s just unhelpful and doesn’t aid the sort of thoughtful discussion about the significant issues of equity raised by Scotland’s no-fee/low-grant system of student funding we still desperately need.


Footnote 1: The Record’s detailed calculations

The Record bases its sums on there being 30,000 entrants to degree courses each year, of which only around half would be liable. It estimates one-quarter of those will be on three year courses and therefore the first income would come when those pay £4,500 in 2021. That suggests some 3,750 paying £4,500, giving just under £17m.  The Record suggests the net income would be around £15m. Near enough. (As I assume one-third of the income would be needed to stop the poorest students getting into further excess debt, the usable net proceeds for FE in the first year will be a bit lower than The Record estimates, nearer £10m.)

Because it is only interested in the effects within the next parliamentary term, The Record does not carry the calculation forward to the next year, when the scheme would be expected to take almost full effect. At that point, the remaining liable graduates on 4 year courses  (30,000 x 50% = 15,000, less 3,750 = 11,250) would pay £6,000 each, giving £67m, plus a further cohort of three year students would pay a further £17m, giving an income of £84m.  That’s still short of my £100m, probably for two reasons. First, payments  from those who spent more than four years in the system (longer courses, repeat years) are still missing: they might take the number up to somewhere round £90m once the system is in a steady state. The rest of the gap will be due to The Record working from a figure of 30,000 entrants to degree courses, which gives a lower base for the calculation than the SAAS figures I’m using.  I think the SAAS ones should be a slightly better base, but by the time we’re only £10m apart on rough estimates, it’s not really an argument worth having. Let’s assume £90-£100m is the working estimate of the full value of the  scheme early in the life of the next parliament, or £60-65m for FE,  after compensating the poorest HE students for extra debt.

As explained above, the other part of the calculation which purports to show the real value is only going to £200,000 is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of student loans and public finances.

Footnote 2

The article quotes John Swinney suggesting that there has been a one-third increase in graduates from poorer backgrounds. It’not clear what the source for that is, but the figures often quoted by the SG are the UCAS ones for 18 year olds entering HE in  a university from the most disadvantaged 20% of backgrounds. In 2006, there were 425 such students. In 2015 there were 605. That’s in fact a 42% increase. It’s also only 180 people, or an average improvement of 18  per year over a decade, before we all get too excited.

Mr Swinney suggests the Conservative plan puts this progress at risk. A quick look at the pattern in the rest of the UK does not show Scotland performing better than the rest of the UK on this measure.

Data here:










Tuition fees and universalism

Free tuition is  a “universal” benefit, according to Scottish Ministers.

Really?  The public subsidy for school-level education is universal. Absolutely everyone is entitled to a school place.  Indeed, if you don’t go to one of schools provided by the state, your parents will be under the cosh to explain what alternative education is in place.  A number of people reject this subsidy and go private. They sometimes argue this means schools are not a universal benefit, and they are a saving  to the state. As the parent of a child in the state system and a product of the local comp, I can confidently say that the value of their children’s presence in the system would be so substantial that it would more than make up for the extra spending needed. Let’s stick with describing school-level education as a universal service.  Like the NHS, you can choose not use it, but it’s there for all of us.

An analogy is often made, implicitly more than explicitly, between school and university provision.  The rhetoric which calls on Scotland’s proud tradition of free education indeed draws quite specifically on the country’s impressively early network of open access schools. However, university fees in Scotland were only automatically covered by public funding after the post-war UK welfare state came along.  There’s a clue in the fact that in 1901 Andrew Carnegie established a trust to help with “the payment of fees of students of Scottish birth or extraction in respect of courses leading to a degree of a Scottish University”. Indeed, tuition fee grants were  partially means-tested (yes, really) until 1977.  Counterintuitively, the high period of free tuition, in Scotland as in the wider UK, was 1977 to 1998: see footnote 1.

University, unlike school, is not open to everyone.  It’s not just that a university education will be too much for some people, or that many more who could manage will never want to go.  Many people who would like to go can’t, even if they have achieved results which (in the Access Commission’s words) are at least at the level of the “access threshold” for a course.  Page 37 of the Commission’s report sets out the problem: demand increasingly outstrips supply in Scotland, competition for places is getting tighter and it is the most disadvantaged who suffer. One-third of Scottish applicants are now turned away (see here). Admission is skewed heavily to those from wealthier homes.

Unlike schooling, university is therefore not in any sensible use of the term a universal benefit.

But schooling might still provide a useful reference point for funding policy. It is 100% available to all of us and 100% free.  On the logic of the school funding model, we could peg the degree of “free-ness” of university tuition to the degree of universality.  The higher the degree of participation, the higher the public subsidy.

Because it is unrealistic (and undoubtedly misconceived) to aim for 100% actual university participation, our notional 100% might be everyone benefiting from c£30,000 investment in their personal development after the age of 17 (using the average cost of a university honours degree: we’ll not try to subsidise everyone at the same rate as a vet). Once that ambition was 100% achieved, degrees could be 100% subsidised.  While it’s only x% achieved, they could be x% subsidised, with loan (still subsided, mind you, but not at the cost of other cash spending) taking the slack.

Or you might argue that people who go to university deserve to have much more spent on their education than people who don’t.  This is a belief held by many graduates and their parents, and underpins the debate about free tuition, although it’s rarely expressed quite so bluntly.  Your argument might be on merit (they’ve worked harder) and/or utility (they will be more economically or socially useful) or they will be cheaper in other ways (healthier, less criminal).  As a graduate, obviously I find these arguments appealing. Even so, let’s admit that the system does not currently find space for all the harder-working, potentially extra-useful people in the population who would benefit from taking part, and won’t be “universal” even in that more narrow sense until it does.

Then “free tuition” might be an aspiration pegged to the achievement of fully equal access  by social background (the SG’s target for that is 2030), plus reaching the point where the system is large enough to ensure that everyone sufficiently qualified to get a place can have one if they want.  Until we achieve these two things, we could limit the subsidy, skewing it more towards people from under-represented groups, and only increasing it and sharing it out more evenly as we get closer to our aim.

Either system above would give those currently benefiting from free tuition, who are (very) disproportionately drawn from more advantaged backgrounds a stake in improving things for everyone else.  At the moment, they have none: very much the opposite, in fact. From their perspective, any more equal use of current resources means it’s all downhill from here.

Those defending free tuition never seem to have an answer to how more opportunities for university-level education, better student grants, and a more equitable per capita investment across different stages of education might be achieved, other than more spend from more tax, in a political system where a big tax hike is clearly a massively unrealistic aspiration (footnote 2).

Yet it remains unclear to me why the people not currently in the university system, or getting there but getting almost no grant and so ending up with most of the debt, have to wait for the distant day when (maybe, but I’m not holding my breath) much more spending is found, rather than benefiting from some more equal distribution of existing post-school spending now. That does not require anyone to be presented with a bill for the full cost of their fees.  Leave aside exactly how it might be done: why in principle wouldn’t either of approaches suggested above be more truly within the spirit of universalism, and fairer, than what we do now?


Footnote 1:  For a brief history of tuition fee funding in Scotland, see my chapter here.   In writing that, I drew on this 2013 article by Nick Hillman.  Or look at this excellent piece, published last month by Prof Robert Anderson of Edinburgh University, which  examines in detail the history of the funding of university tuition. Prof Anderson concludes that the sort of lower-fee system used in England before 2012 and still in place in Wales and Northern Ireland “creates a better balance between student interests, public accountability, academic freedom and democratic access than current entirely unprecedented policies pursued in England.” I’d agree, but add – for the reasons set out above – it strikes a better balance than current Scottish policies, too.

Footnote 2: When the Parliament’s Finance Committee called for evidence on using the new Scottish Rate of Income Tax last year, from four million Scottish adults and countless third sector organisations, it received one piece of evidence (from me) arguing for the power to be used to increase spending, and explaining in detail why this would be progressive. The power isn’t being used.  The most radical tax move on the cards from the likely majority governing party for the next five years after May currently appears to be not passing on a cut in 2017 to those on the higher rate (or possibly not passing on most of it) and a marginal tweak to the top end  and defrosting of an otherwise unreformed council tax. We need to stop pretending that the distribution of existing spending can be left out of any substantial debate about improving equality over the life of the next Parliament.





How many people should go to university?

It is for the Scottish Government to determine the size of the higher education sector required to deliver the skills necessary for economic growth.

Commission on Widening Access, March 2016


How many people should go to university? Scotland’s Access Commission turns out to have a very specific take on the purpose of HE.  It’s all about fuelling the economy: human capital theory rules, leaving no space for any romanticism about the intrinsic value of developing the intellect, democratic or otherwise.

The Scottish Government by contrast says entry to university should be about “ability to learn”, implying there should be space in the system for anyone with that quality (and who wants to go),  even if it might be more economically useful for them to do something else, or as useful for them to do something cheaper to fund.  The rhetoric of “ability to learn” implies a demand-led system.

Ability to what?

Ironically, England is now much further down the line than Scotland towards a system driven by student demand. The cap has been lifted on places.  The remaining constraint is students’  “willingness to borrow” (not their ability to pay – the Scottish rhetoric needs to catch up with a decade of universal fee loans).  That willingness has turned out to be been much higher than many predicted, for whatever reason. There’s some additional limit in the English system set by “willingness to provide”: some  institutions are not expanding much.  But plenty are.   It’s an expensive model upfront for the state, and later for graduates, and only possible south of the border because university funding has been re-packaged as off-balance sheet loans.

Sticking instead with conventional cash funding, Scotland can’t afford simply to let everyone who wants to go to university do so, even if their grades would have been good enough to get them there in the past. The Access Commission notes that there’s been grade inflation in admissions in Scotland in recent years: hence its advocacy of separate “access thresholds” for the most disadvantaged.  The line about “ability to learn” conceals that it’s really “ability to be admitted” that counts.

An economic case?

Maybe the Commission is right and  economic need should govern the system’s size. Labour market data still shows graduates are more likely to be employed, and paid better, than non-graduates, especially women. There’s also a low hum from employers about wanting more of certain types of skills.  That suggests we’re not over-producing.  But there’s also a common perception that there are already too many people going to university.  I hear this from parents, sometimes from people who work in schools, and it’s a favourite theme of broadsheet columnists that graduates are ending up in dead-end jobs. It’s a view that’s present in Scotland and tends to be body-swerved in the political debate.

Although concerns about too many young people being pushed towards a degree are often expressed in generic terms, listen carefully and it’s working class young people who are more often felt to be under inappropriate pressure to head for university (I’ve heard that not least from people who teach in less advantaged schools).   I don’t disagree that the debate can sound dismissive of non-university choices: I’ll just feel more comfortable when that’s being said as much by the teachers and parents of the off-spring of the professional classes, about their own kids.  Meantime, the “too many” argument is most likely to rebound on those already less privileged.

There’s definitely room for much better, earlier unbiased information, guidance and advice on post-school choices: COWA rightly highlights that. The  size of system would then flow from (a) creating informed demand, and (b) responding to that.  But that’s back to an uncapped model, with the “right” level of participation for economy being the aggregate of individual choices.

COWA’s alternative,  state planning of provision on some set of economic criteria relies in a faith in officialdom’s predictive capacities that I don’t share. There’s already one area where the Scottish Government already tries to manage the supply to meet demand. That’s teachers, and getting that right, within the much-monitored and relatively closed economy of the Scottish schools system, has been a perennial headache.

How many can we educate?

Alternatively, you might want to challenge a narrowly economic calculus. If you believe the most important thing about going to university is learning to think better, then the correct number of students might be those we have to the capacity to teach to do so.  If I have a worry about the huge expansion in university participation in the past 25 years, it’s how confident we can be that all these students are emerging at the end of a degree much better tooled up intellectually than when they started (this is a separate point from what subjects are being studied: good teaching transcends the topic). That could be framed as a economic issue.  For me it would be more an educational and democratic one.

How you quantify a country’s capacity to offer a truly university-level education is unclear. All the official measures show results are improving and the system is now explicitly structured around producing set intellectual achievements (“learning outcomes” – I speak as a current student: it’s an unrecognisable world from 30 years ago).   You’ll hear anecdotes about educational warehousing and poor teaching and courses, but as with the graduates-in-Starbucks argument, the anecdotes are at odds with the statistical evidence.

The pragmatic reality

In practice, the size of the system in Scotland has been decided for years not  by economic formula, ability to learn or reference to intellectual teaching capacity, but in a pragmatic way.  It’s been based on two questions: what are we paying for already, and can we afford this year to add a few more places?

The decision on numbers is therefore largely about short-term political judgement and marginal decisions about immediate spending priorities.  I don’t think that’s an indefensible approach when things are relatively static.  But it starts to come apart if applications  are rising, and the government is celebrating that fact, but there’s no equivalent increase  in provision.  That’s been the story of the past few years: see below. To that is now being added a (justifiable) push to increase the numbers admitted from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, which risks displacing the next-most-disadvantaged before the most privileged are much affected (see here).  In that context, continuing to top up the system ad hoc with no systematic cross-referencing to the general pressure from applicants looks less defensible.

How many people should go to university?

The instrumental argument that there’s some  economically right number is superficially attractive but ultimately a chimera. We could start instead from what is intrinsically valuable about a university education, as opposed to any other. I’ll assert that it’s the chance to spend several years learning to be  a better critical thinker at a demanding level, as part of learning more about a subject you are really interested in. If that’s not your thing, that’s fine, and we should support you developing in other ways that you’d prefer. If it is your thing, it ought to be a life-changing experience which will transform your relationship with the world.  The benefits  will go far beyond the economic, for you and for those around you.

There is no magic number or percentage of the population for whom this is a sensible way to spend a bit of their life.  There are however likely still to be many people from less advantaged backgrounds who would get a huge amount out of a university education, either straight from school  or later, but who aren’t getting the chance.  Some never apply, and the Commission has lots to say about that too, but let’s worry here about the ones who are applying but not getting in.

The UCAS acceptance rate for Scots at age 18 is now just below 74%, compared to around 80% in the years up to 2008: see figure 11 here.    Looking at applicants of all ages, UCAS shows an overall acceptance rate of 68% for Scotland in 2015 (from Table 2 here), compared to 77% in 2008 (from Figure 10 here).  Looked at from the perspective of the unsuccessful, the “disappointment rate” has grown from 23% to 32%. The Commission correctly says  that the most disadvantaged are most affected by this.

The change happened quickly between 2008  and 2011 and we have stuck at this level ever since.   To dismiss this as a function of lots more inappropriate applicants, you would have to take a very strong position on the quality of Scottish applicants having dropped suddenly: the evidence of grade inflation in admissions wouldn’t be on your side.

UCAS reports there were 51,295  Scottish applicants in 2015 of whom 34,775 were accepted (Table 2 again), implying  4,700 more people would need to have been accepted for the acceptance rate to be back at 2008 levels (51,295 x 77% = 39,497), implying there are three or four times that number of Scottish students “missing” in total from our universities, compared to what would have happened if supply had kept pace with demand.

If these students were in the system, it would be costing around £120m to £160m more than now. University budgets have just been cut by over £20 million.  Perhaps we think the old acceptance rate was too high, or current applicants are less deserving: even so, these figures imply that an unprecedently large gap has opened up between public aspiration and government delivery. Some of this ghost army of the rebuffed may eventually make it to university via college: but that begs other questions (see footnote 1).

It would of course by helpful if we could make room by expunging from the system any people who have been efficiently delivered by the educational conveyor belt, but are now only going through the motions.  The problem is that this group appears very hard to spot in the applicant pool.  Until we get better at that, or at persuading them to do something else (tough, when a degree has such strong social status and labour market currency), taking no action to address these historically low acceptance rates will mean plenty of able people from all sorts of backgrounds will continue to be turned down.

Funding expansion

The Commission observes that one option for meeting the cost of expansion might be more efficient use of existing funded places (fewer repeat years for articulating students, for example).  So some of the cost of admitting extra students might be offset by savings elsewhere in the teaching budget. Maybe. But the SFC clearly didn’t see such savings being possible in the short-run, when it recently pulled back from releasing extra access places for next year. Moving to a three year honours degree programme for many students would allow far more people the chance to go to university, just using current resources, but who believes the system will move that way on any scale?  Not me.

The government could bring down the cost of providing extra places by ceasing to fully fund everyone’s teaching costs from the cash budget and introducing a fee loan for part of the cost, for some or all students.  To find £160m, the upper limit of the sums above, implies asking every SAAS-funded student to substitute £1,200 a year of their free tuition for a loan (or the richest half to forego £2,400). I’m guessing that will not happen. One mathematically correct but doubtless politically unacceptable way to describe this, is that to save people from better off families less than £10,000 of debt for a degree, or everyone a debt of less than £5,000, we are excluding thousands of other people from university every year.

So we are locked into an expensive model of expansion. Legitimate questions then arise about pouring more money into university places at the expense of other parts of the education system.  That won’t alter that the more we cap now, the more certainly we will be freezing out able people who could derive substantial benefit from going to university. I suggest the immediate choices here aren’t economic, but moral and political.


  1.  All this raises a question about the growth in articulation.  Articulation is a great thing for those who are tentative about the journey at the start.  I spent ten minutes yesterday explaining it to someone who has never been to higher education: for them it could be perfect.   But if some of that growth in articulation is people who really wanted to go to university and have ended up in college on an HN course as a fallback, in the hope of getting a second chance at university entry later, it begs more questions.  Growing articulation statistics have been held up in recent years as a sign of colleges’ success.  In part they will be, but they may also be a signal of the system’s failure to give some people what they wanted, and were already capable of doing, in the first place. I’m not aware of any research that’s been done on how many HN entrants tried unsuccessfully for university first: but then, in whose interests would it be to commission that? Also, if displaced degree students are on HN courses, does that have any knock-on effect on a further group of students?  I don’t know how we’d tell, but it’s a reasonable concern.
  2. Acceptance rates in England and Wales are substantially higher than in Scotland, even though application rates are higher too.  Their acceptance rates also dropped around the turn of the decade, but have more than recovered compared to 2008. The links above provide data for all the UK nations, for those interested.




Access thresholds: a policy that can’t be separated from total places

The Commission on Widening Access has reported and the early headlines are all about its proposal for universities to set “access thresholds” for all their courses by 2019.

Recommendation 11: By 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. These access thresholds should be separate to standard entrance requirements and set as ambitiously as possible, at a level which accurately reflects the minimum academic standard and subject knowledge necessary to successfully complete a degree programme.

The Commission also says:

Rather than the market rate, these new access thresholds should be based on the minimum academic standard judged necessary to successfully complete a specific degree programme.

Note “market rate”.  That’s because – despite the rhetoric against “marketisation” – Scotland does have an HE market, in which universities and students compete with one another in the admissions process.  Right now it’s a seller’s market. Again, as the Commission says:

Over the last decade, a gradual improvement in school attainment has led to increased demand for higher education in the context of a system with a fixed number of places. In order to manage this increased competition, universities have, perhaps understandably, responded by raising entry requirements.

Universities have approached our discussions with them on this issue with candour, acknowledging that this trend has led to a position where many institutions now routinely ask for substantially higher grades than the level of attainment that is necessary to successfully complete degree programmes.

The clearest evidence for that comes from UCAS – figure 11 here – which shows how “acceptance rates” have fallen over the past decade and are now substantially lower in Scotland (and NI) than in Wales or England.  That’s happened even though the number of 18 years olds has been falling (Figure 30 here).  The Commission goes on:

Since disadvantaged learners are much less likely than their more affluent peers to achieve the very high grades often now required to enter university, it is they who have been disadvantaged most by this trend.

Don’t overlook that quietly devastating statement.  This is not about some sort of act of nature. The number of funded places has been every bit as much a policy choice of Ministers as free tuition: indeed, the two are related. A more fully subsidised system is always likely to be  a smaller one.

Given that, it’s not hard to see why the Commission has suggested special arrangements for those whose currency in this market –  qualifications  –  is believed not to represent their capacity to benefit from what’s on offer.  This market is failing, the Commission is saying, and intervention is justified (I don’t disagree).  This won’t be comfortable rhetoric for many – but it’s what’s going on and  analysing it this way reveals an essential issue.

Increasing benefits for some people can’t be cost-free for everyone else, when supply is constrained.   The Commission says (emphasis added):

the Commission has discussed how we deliver fair access to university within a system with a fixed number of funded places for undergraduate students. We are mindful that the introduction of access thresholds may raise concerns about the displacement of other applicants. It is our belief, however, that if we are serious about achieving a fairer Scotland, this will require some movement across the system and a breaking down of entrenched patterns of advantage.

So  those displaced are assumed likely to be representatives of entrenched advantage, a point reflected in media coverage. But why should that be? The more places are filled through the access threshold route, the greater the  competition will be for the rest.  That’s likely to push up further the “market rate” in grades for those other places.

The people who will do best in that competition will be those with the strongest exam results.  So it’s unlikely to be young people from private schools or Jordanhill who’ll be at the sharp end of displacement.  It’ll be the applicants with OK but not great results and not strongly disadvantaged  –  “ordinary Scots” is the political term.  Unless this move is accompanied with a quota for private schools, say (good luck with that), or more places, it’s very hard to see how that effect could be avoided.  Further interventions to create an even more stratified approach protecting the next group up, and then the next?  That’s unlikely.

So extra  places are at the heart of this.  The Commission says  (emphasis added):

There are a number of options (which are not mutually exclusive) for increasing the number of higher education students from disadvantaged backgrounds:

• the system could be grown to increase the number of places to support the entry of a greater number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds;

• the current number of places available could be used more equitably, e.g. through use of minimum entry thresholds; or • provision could be restructured to make best use of the places that are available, for example, by removing unnecessary duplication of study years where this is not a requirement for a student to succeed.

The Commission has focused on how we make access fairer within the current system. It is for the Scottish Government to determine the size the higher education sector required to deliver the skills necessary for economic growth. If the Government chooses to make changes to the current system then it should, of course, consider how such changes might be used to best effect to support fair access.

The highlighted sentence is as important as all the paragraphs before. That the Scottish Government needs to look again at the system’s size is an absolutely fundamental point – if that is parked while  access thresholds (or indeed any interventions based on qualification adjustment for the most disadvantaged) proceed, it won’t be entrenched advantage that’s most likely to be broken down, but the sort of advantage that is only relative to those with least.




If the new threshold was going to divert enough current applicants away from the remaining places, this wouldn’t be such a problem.  But applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds remain a disproportionately small group.

How “disadvantage” will be measured will matter – area-based measures, specifically SIMD, won’t work well here – plenty of the most disadvantaged people live in areas outside SIMD20 and some people in SIMD20 areas won’t be personally disadvantaged.  There’ll be room for serious resentment if some of those benefiting from access thresholds are from straight down the line middle class homes.  One to watch.

The admission here that fixing the problem by improving exam grades is unlikely to happen any time soon is depressing –  but realistic.  However, being sure this initiative is not reducing the impetus for better results for these young people will matter.




Commission on Widening Access: things to look for

The report of the Commission on Widening Access is being launched later today (Monday 14 March).

It’ll be a document covering lots of ground, but it’s likely most of the content will go unreported – only what catches attention in the first few hours will make it  into the broadcast news and the next day’s press.  And what catches immediate attention will depend very much on what the Commission, and the Scottish Government, choose to highlight.

There’s nothing unusual about that – but it makes it worthwhile setting out some advance questions for anyone speed reading the text on the day or looking at it after the dust has settled.

From my perspective – with a particular interest in student funding policy and its relationship with participation  – here are some important questions:

  • will the Commission express any concern about how the student funding system in Scotland relies so heavily on debt to finance living costs – and that this debt is regressively distributed, so that, in effect, the cost of the system is borne disproportionately by the people who are (still) most unrepresented in it?
  •  the interim report (p73 here) appeared to suggest that where low income students don’t use this loan, the main issue is persuading them to borrow more.  Will it repeat this?
  • will it, as trailed,  have more to say about how the student finance system may be limiting the educational choices made by students from poorer backgrounds (p73 again)?
  • will it comment on whether there needs to be further expansion of university (specifically, university) places, given the UCAS data (Fig 11 here) shows demand progressively out-stripping supply over recent years – and if so, will it talk about how much that might cost and how it could be funded?
  • will it have anything to say about the usefulness of the additional places ring-fenced for the most disadvantaged? The interim report appeared to see this making an important contribution to the most recent improvements in numbers: first para, page 46 here, but further planned expansion of this scheme has recently been discontinued.  That was an SFC decision, but made possible by the SG’s decision not to use its guidance letter to the Council to specify the scheme be protected, in the face of a reduction to university funding.
  • how far will it highlight that some of the big-sounding percentage changes in participation by those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds reflect very small changes in absolute numbers?
  • will it be frank about the downsides of the HN-to-degree route, as well as celebrating its strengths: specifically, will it acknowledge that for many this route means one or two further years of study – in effect, a 5 or 6 year path to honours – for which the state offers mainly extra loan?
  • underlying most of these questions  – very importantly –  how far will its recommendations be mainly for schools, colleges, universities and the SFC, rather than the SG as principal funder, decision-maker and policy-setter?
  • generally, what will the ratio be of congratulation to uncomfortable challenge? Are we in the game of business as usual with some cosmetic tweaking – or fundamental reform?

There’ll be much more to look for.  One big theme for digesting slowly will be what the report says about data: it is constantly surprising how many pretty basic questions we can’t answer, despite the sea of numbers, from what’s available.  Plenty to look for too on what happens in schools, including around equal access to the subjects needed for, say, medicine and science degrees more generally. Also, the Commission’s formal brief is to consider the chance of a young person born in 2015 getting into university (again, specifically, university): how far will it concentrate on that group, and how far will today’s 9, 10, 12, 15 etc year olds get a look in?

The contents of the report are unlikely to be a complete surprise to the SG, as the Commission’s secretariat has been based in the government’s  higher education policy team. How long the government will want to consider its response is therefore hard to know.

However, we can predict that after Tuesday the news bandwagon will  have largely rolled on. Yet this is the first commission we have had in Scotland on questions of higher education access and  – by unavoidable extension – funding since Cubie,  in 1999.  It would be good to think its deliberations will have a more durable impact on policy and debate than, say, the ill-fated recent report of the Commission on Local Tax Reform.  Let’s see.



Drop out for financial reasons: a revealing use of FoI by The Courier

The Courier has just published this piece –  Students financial struggles laid bare  – which reports data it has collected from universities around Scotland, using FoI, on the number of students dropping out for financial reasons in each of the past four and a half years. It covers all universities except Glasgow and St Andrews, which both declined to return figures.  It’s important to note that these figures record whether students report financial reasons for leaving early – but drop out is a complex  thing, and it’s often about several things at once.

2013-14 saw the introduction of the SG’s “minimum income guarantee” (MIG) which increased the maximum support available for students in all years of study, provided they were willing to take on significant additional amounts of debt.  So it is interesting to look at whether there is an obvious difference in the figures from that year.

At national level, the figures after 2013-14 are clearly lower than the years before – but there is also a falling trend from 2011-12 onwards: the figures are 440, 411, 380 and 328.  So there was a similar drop between 2011-12 and 2012-13, and between 2012-13 and 2013-14. Thus, how far the MIG has had a specific effect remains open to debate.

Also, at the level of institutions, it’s a mixed picture.  In 2013-14, of the 13 universities who  responded, 6 saw a drop in the numbers dropping out reportedly for financial reasons in 2013-14, 6 saw an increase and one stayed the same.  Changes in local institutional practice rather than funding could be having a large impact.

The numbers are relatively small for most institutions, so there are limits to what can be deduced from individual year to year changes.  Also, it appears these figures could include  students from outside Scotland as well, so Scotland-only trends would require more digging.   For Edinburgh in particular, which saw a large rise in 2013-14, students from around the UK could be having an impact.  Without Edinburgh there would be a much clearer drop across Scotland  in 2013-14.

However, The Courier also obtained from three universities in its area the numbers seeking help from hardship funds.  In every case the numbers doing so have risen since 2013-14.  This is a larger group, less vulnerable to small sample effects and therefore more likely to be telling us something substantial – and these are all universities with far fewer non-Scottish students than Edinburgh.

The main conclusion from these figures is that, whatever else, the MIG has not done much to address the most extreme cases of hardship – and that’s perhaps not surprising.  Not only is it very dependent on willingness to borrow, the funding available drops sharply as income rises.  To get the MIG requires students to come from families with incomes below £17,000: support drops in sharp steps at £17,000 and £24,000, and by the time income reaches £34,000, state support (all via loan at this point) is lower in Scotland for those away from home than it is anywhere else in the UK – a lot lower than in either Wales or England.

One  thing which is apparent from The Courier’s report is that Scottish Government remains determined to brazen things out.  Here’s its line as reported:

“Our commitment to free tuition, the prospect of the lowest average debt [Note: why this line does not tell you what you may think it does, is discussed here] and the best graduate prospects in the UK saw a record number of Scots accepted to study at Scottish universities last year.

“In contrast to the UK Government, who are abolishing maintenance grants for new students in England entirely from 2016-17, we increased the grant element of our package for the poorest students by £125 in 2015-16. [Note: having cut grants by figures generally either side of £1,000 a year in 2013-14.  The recent UK grant cut has been a presentational gift for the SG.]

“Our minimum income guarantee for undergraduate students from the poorest households living at home is £7,625 per year – the highest package of support in the UK.” [Note: Not so – Wales provides almost £8,000  for those away from home, mainly as grant.  The SG  package is only highest for those living at home.]



Student guest blog #1: “We need to start being honest about higher education”

This is the first student guest blog on this site. It’s by a third year Scottish student in his late twenties at university in England. I’m very grateful to him for being willing to write something here.

Graeme first went to university in Scotland straight from school at 17, but things didn’t work out and he left his five year course at the end of third year. Having worked for a couple of years and thought about what he really wanted to do, in 2012 he applied to go back to university, deferring entry to 2013 in order to save up.  In his first year, the Scottish Government provided him with a living cost loan but no fee loan or grant, because he had had some funding in the past.  In his second and third year he has received a fee loan, a living cost loan and Independent Student Bursary.

Here are his thoughts on his journey through higher education and the funding system.


For most, studying (and student finance) is a pretty straight-forward think; apply via UCAS, get offered places, apply to SAAS, find somewhere to live, move (perhaps) and enrol. But it doesn’t always go as smoothly as that, which is certainly my experience. When leaving school I had thought it would be the former rather than the latter, but the career I decided to pursue turned out to be the wrong one, quite simply it didn’t meet either my aptitude or desires. So I left the course before completing it fully, and found a job that paid the bills but didn’t make any use of the creative skills I had gained at university. After a couple of years I began to think seriously about my future career prospects. Did I want to continue being (effectively) underemployed or have a job that I could have passion for? I opted for the latter, and came to the realisation that a thread running through my experience of school up to this point was graphic design.

This is why I decided to return to higher education, as it would give me the support and time to gain confidence in my existing design skills (I left my previous course with very low morale), learn new ones, and put myself on a better long term career path. Importantly to allow myself to do that I decided that returning to an undergraduate course would give me the best opportunity of success. After researching into courses and possible options I applied to universities in Scotland & England, accepting the only unconditional offer I received, which was from a university in England.

As noted above my first year of my new course was treated as repeated study, meaning that I was responsible for paying my tuition fees directly, which as I am sure anyone readying this will expect is £9,000. At the time I was earning about £13,000 per year before tax deductions so was in no position to do this, especially when also holding significant personal debt. I therefore deferred my place to help save up and work as much overtime as possible. But even with that in order to take up my place the next year required some shrewd financial planning.

A down-payment of fees was made using a credit card (£2,500), subsequent payments were made using the loan for living costs that I received (£6,500 – the 2013-14 rate) and I supported myself with the credit card and with part time work. For second year I maintained part time work and combined with the loan for living costs (£6,750) and Independent Student’s Bursary (£750) I was able to clear some of my personal debt so I was no longer living on quite the financial cliff edge month to month as I had before. Now in my final year I decided to end working part-time in order to focus fully on my studies so I am now fully reliant on some modest savings from additional summer work and the support received from SAAS.

Now approaching headlong towards graduation I am confident that I made the right decision to return to university, and have made considerable progress on my aims for studying. But I remain unconvinced that the financial struggle has been worth it. It obviously causes a lot of stress day-to-day but I will also be emerging with considerable debts. I will still have almost £3,000 of personal debt, and will have added £38,000 (2 years of £9,000 tuition fees and 3 years of living costs loans) to my previous student loan, which I think will bring it to a figure of around £50,000 (accumulating interest as well of course).

Being someone who actually has been subject to higher education policies from both the UK Government and Scottish Government I would like to offer two points.

1.    Higher education in Scotland is not free, as often touted by many (politicians included). Yes, tuition fees in Scotland, for most Scottish & EU students are free, but the decision to go to university (whether that is in Scotland or elsewhere) always requires a substantial financial undertaking.

2.    We need to start being honest about higher education. Honest about what is possible and what it may cost, and preferably on a cross-party basis. The first step towards this would be the acceptance that most political parties (Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the SNP) are responsible for the current conditions of student finance. As a student today it is pretty disheartening to see a class of politicians who did enjoy very generous student finance use the issue as something to make political capital out of.


Policy note

The determination which Graeme has needed to show in returning to university and getting through his current course is the single most striking thing for me in his story.

All I knew when we first got in touch was that Graeme was affected by Scottish policy on student grant. He turned out to be at the sharp end of several different decisions. Though his situation is unique to him, and there shouldn’t be many Scottish students with as much debt, he won’t be at all unusual in not conforming to the stereotype he describes at the start. Interrupted studies or repeat years are not that uncommon. Students on longer degrees or who start with an HN and then undertake a degree can also end taking 5 or 6 years to complete. Government debts of over £30,000 are far from impossible in such cases, even for those who can stay in Scotland.

Here are the policies which Graeme’s situation brings out particularly clearly:

  • The lack of a portable fee grant: a student in Graeme’s position from Wales would have been able to limit her or his fee borrowing to less than £4,000 a year, because the Welsh Government provides its fee subsidy as a fully portable grant.
  • Low maintenance grant, especially for mature students: Scotland is the only UK nation to give mature students a lower grant than younger ones (a difference dating back to the early years of devolution). Under the Welsh rules, Graeme would have been entitled to the same full grant as a young student (£5,161 a year) rather than £750 (£875 this year). The Northern Irish and English rules would have awarded him over £3,000 a year in grant, although the English figure is about to drop to zero.
  • Availability of places: it is harder to judge the effects in any individual case, but there are signs from UCAS and other sources that the supply of places in Scotland is not keeping up with demand and that some students from Scotland are turning to provision over the border because of that.
  • Previous study: any system has to find a way to cope with students who wish to resume studying after already having had some support. Some of the most difficult decisions made by SAAS will relate to these cases and it is important that there is leeway in the system to deal with them as fairly as possible. For students in this position, it’s worth being aware, first, that as here you may be able to get some further help, even if you’ve had assistance before, and also that the Carnegie Trust exists specifically to help Scottish students who fall outside the SAAS rules with their fees, but only if they can get a place in Scotland.

The piece finishes with a call for better recognition that going to university is still a substantial financial undertaking for many Scots and for a cross-party approach to how we could deal better with that. I’ll finish there too.



Scottish Rate of Income Tax: maths vs rhetoric and looking ahead to the 2017 local elections

This piece on Sceptical Scot highlights that for  the lowest paid, a 1p increase in the SRIT would be more than cancelled out by the rise coming this April in the threshold at which tax becomes payable.  An increase in SRIT would be substantially mitigated for many more, so

compared to the current year anyone earning up to £19,000 would still see their tax bill fall with a 1p increase in the SRIT.  They would be more than compensated by the threshold change. Someone on £25,000 would pay £5 more a month than now: around median full-time earnings (about £27,000), a person would pay £7.50 more a month.  To be paying at least £5 a week more than now, you would have to be earning over £55,000. Those numbers exclude the tax cut foregone, but still put into perspective some of the more florid rhetoric about protecting the less well-paid.

The figurework behind these numbers is contained in this spreadsheet Threshholds Income tax 2016-17.

The piece adds that the repositioning of Labour and the Liberal Democrats on tax means that

it is impossible to imagine a safer context politically in which the SNP could propose using these powers, particularly once the cushioning effect of the threshold rise at lower incomes is thrown in. Indeed, this may be the easiest opportunity there will ever be to challenge the assumption that a race to the bottom on income tax is as inevitable as gravity.  The SNP might lose a few votes, but it’s  implausible that it would be on a scale which would cause them real damage.

One last point not made in the piece is that cutting council budgets now might be regarded as having medium-term advantages which outweigh the short-term pain, in relation to the 2017 local elections.  The majority of councils are not controlled by the SNP, so it will mostly be the party’s political opponents who will be making the cuts required this year.  Those areas such as Dundee and Perth and Kinross, which do have SNP-led councils, may be regarded as loyal enough not to be at serious risk.  If the party is banking on successfully shifting any responsibility for the cuts in the short-term up to Westminster or down to non-SNP councillors (there are already signs of this approach, for example in Glasgow), it may see these cuts as relatively low risk, while a  depressed local government funding baseline would be an advantage as it approaches the 2017-18 budget.  It would make a year-on-year increase in the amount given to local government immediately ahead of the 2017 elections much easier to achieve, either using new tax powers or shuffling money round from elsewhere.

The SG has used this “cut and restore” approach before  in other areas (for example, recently making much of its £125 increase in student grants this year, while ignoring the four-figure cuts imposed in 2013).  It’s possible that thinking on these lines provides some explanation for why imposing such a large budget hit on local government is seen as a lower political risk than increasing income tax for those in the top half of the earnings distribution, over and above the fact that local service cuts will  tend to be less visible, especially to the better off.