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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.



Childcare: an issue for primary age children too

There’s something missing in the current childcare debate.

The Scottish Government recently issued a discussion paper on the planned move from the present commitment of 600 hours of childcare for 3 and 4 year olds, and some 2 year olds, to 1140 hours (30 hours per week in term time or 24 or so spread over a working year) – in effect, slightly longer than children spend in primary school.

The document argues strongly for the benefit to children of good quality (that’s an important proviso) childcare but also notes:

provision of subsidised early learning and childcare increases female labour force participation

Where subsidised childcare removes barriers to employment it can help lift families out of poverty and help parents gain further skills, enhancing their employability and future earnings.

But there’s almost complete silence on what happens when that child reaches 5 (or indeed 4 and two-thirds in some cases). The SG’s Poverty Adviser recently recommended that the SG  (emphasis added) “consider providing a limited number of free hours of childcare for primary school aged children” – but that appears to be about it. The last big SG policy document on out of school care that turns up on a search dates from 2003. The Early Years Task Force was asked to look at out of school care in November 2013  – but I can’t readily find its conclusions (I’ll post them here, if anyone can point me to them). It’s not clear that any official data is collected on the availability nationally of out of school care (again, happy to post here any that readers can identify).

The typical P1 and P2 school day round our way starts at 8.50 (or a touch later if the line doesn’t go in straight away) and finishes at 2.45 on Thursday and 12.15 on Friday.  For 13 weeks of the year school is closed. From P3, the school day finishes half an hour later (15 minutes on Friday).

There are some very forgiving employers out there, but I doubt the number of careers open to those available only from around 9.30  to 2, or even 2.30, Monday to Thursday, for only 39 weeks of the year, is very high.

Yet access to the things which would really help women work – school-based breakfast clubs, after school clubs and holiday clubs – is not guaranteed (our local school has all these things – but even here for the breakfast club there’s a long waiting list).  Further, barely debated and invisible in any form of separately funded  national strategy comparable to what’s done for pre-school children (or any national strategy at all?), any local subsidies for such arrangements, where they exist, must be vulnerable in the face of budget cuts over the next few years. The argument here is not about providing lots of free hours across the board.  It’s more basic.  It’s about providing any sort of service at all – for most possible users, it just needs to be there, and affordably priced.

Even before the extra pre-school hours,  as the funding for early years care is often given flexibly (depending on your council?), parents using private nurseries and who can manage, however marginally, to pay for extra hours already often report that childcare only becomes a real headache when their child starts school.  Until then, they have usually had access to a provider who is open all year round from 8 till 6, making several full days in an ordinary year-round job manageable.  Embedding even larger numbers of free hours in more flexible arrangements features strongly in the recent SG discussion paper.

Thus, the trajectory which will feel most right to many parents – go back gradually if at all when they are still quite little, but build hours up as they become more independent – is the opposite of what the state enables.

There may be a few who wave their 6 year old off to school at 8.15 with a key and a cheerful “I’ll be home at 6”, and deploy the home alone gambit for a quarter of the year (Named Persons look away now). But the reality for many is years of knife-edge schedule juggling with partners, grandparents or neighbours (if those are available) and employers, and/or deferred or limited working.  I’m not suggesting the state should wave a magic wand – but the increasingly intense focus on early years and the policy gap for older children is having the strange effect of making it easier for mothers, in particular, to take on substantial work when their children can barely talk, but not when they are half way to high school. That feels back to front.

Yet, ironically, wrap around care for school age children is much cheaper to provide than care for 2 or 3 year olds.  Lower staff:child ratios and existing (and otherwise often unused) school buildings mean that for the cost of giving a 2 year old one extra hour we could give several 6 or 7 years olds an extra hour after school.

Part of the issue here is the double-edged purpose of childcare policy.  Is it about what’s good for supporting women’s re-entry into the labour market or is it about child development? Both of course, but there needs to be a recognition that while the two can be the same, they aren’t identical.  And that when one aim – child development – is taken over by the school system, the other shouldn’t suddenly be forgotten.

It’s also important not to get too carried away with the philosophy underpinning the recent discussion paper. While some children evidently thrive in group care from 2 (or younger) and all will probably benefit from time with others as they approach school age, long hours in such settings are not for every child or every family – for some people, looking after their child at home in the early years is very important, and the choice to do that should be valued too. That’s not the message when childcare policy focusses so entirely on ever longer hours for pre-schoolers,  however.

As the election approaches, the chance of a nuanced, rounded debate doesn’t look good. Nursery hours, like teacher and police numbers, is becoming a totem issue. We might get as far as a debate about whether what’s promised will be deliverable – but the chance of a discussion about what sort of childcare it really takes to support mothers (and some fathers) back into work feels far off.



Declaration of non-interest. As a freelancer,  I’ve been able to be at the school gate more than many.  The piece above comes from many conversations with other mothers (mainly, but also some fathers) – often while waiting for the bell – whose concerns aren’t well reflected in the public debate.

UCAS application rates for most deprived: up 8% in Wales, 5% in England, 2% in Scotland

This UCAS press notice gives some headline figures for applications to university across the UK, at the close of the “on time” deadline.  The full figures don’t appear to be on-line at the time of writing, but must be coming out later today and The Herald has published some further detail.

The release gives the absolute percentage change in all undergraduate applicants in each part of the UK, but only gives the demographic context (a 2.2% fall in 18 year olds) for England.  For absolute numbers, there’s been a 2% rise in Northern Ireland, 1% in Scotland and Wales and a 1% drop in England, but UCAS notes that application rates for 18 year olds are at their highest in all parts of the UK, except Northern Ireland, where they have fallen slightly (no figures are given).  Changing demography matters, in other words, as does the behaviour of older applicants, any variation in which across the UK can’t be fully unpicked without seeing all the figures.

Unsurprisingly, the Scottish Government is highlighting that this is the highest number of applicants ever in absolute terms and, according to The Herald, the Cabinet Secretary for Education “highlighted an improvement in applications from students from the country’s poorest communities”, adding that “free tuition [is] a key part of our work to ensure access to higher education remains based on the ability to learn not ability to pay.”

It’s worth noting though that the UCAS press notice gives the change in the application rate for the most deprived 20% across the UK.  Wales is seeing the fastest growth, at 8%. England is on 5%.  Scotland sees a 2% rise.  Northern Ireland sees a 4% drop.

These new numbers suggest that the gap between Scotland and the other parts of the UK in application rates to university-level HE by disadvantaged young people has widened this year: Scotland must be at around 16% and other parts of the UK all now above 20%. I’ve argued elsewhere that making direct connections between particular student support policies and changes in applications is not to be advised – the relationship is complicated, as these figures illustrate.  But it seems fair to say that these figures don’t help with any argument that says free tuition is essential to encouraging the most disadvantaged to apply to university.  If it’s going to be justified, it has to be on other grounds.

Of course, the figures that really matter for actual access are acceptances, which we won’t know until much later this year. As The Herald notes, in the absence of a strategy to increase places (and bear in mind the budget agreed yesterday cut university funding and froze spending on student support) the next question is how many of this “record number” of applicants will be able to get a place.


The Herald also reports a 4.3% increase in applications to Scotland from rUK students subject to fees of up to £9,000.

FTEs up, but learning hours down in FE: what does it mean?

The annual Scottish FE college statistics came out recently, prompting the now also annual argument about the fall in in total numbers (headcount) in FE in Scotland versus the increase in FTEs (full-time equivalents).

In its Baseline Report (here), which goes into immense detail about all these figures, The Scottish Funding Council explains colleges were asked “to prioritise more substantive courses designed to improve students’ employment prospects and reduce the number of students enrolled on leisure programmes and very short (less than 10 hours) programmes of study”.

The Minister for Skills said (source linked here):

We have aligned the college offer with the needs of employers so that we are moving from college students along a track where we are delivering full-time courses that are actually aligned to employment and further education, instead of a myriad of short part-time courses.

Colleges are also aligning a lot more with the apprenticeship system.  So, there has been a big change but it has been deliberately to ensure that what is being offered in colleges is of very high quality. It will result in colleges either being able to continue with education in a full-time sense or move into employment in a far more sustainable way than some of the kinds of courses that were being offered before.

One person could be signing up to two or three different courses, counting two or three times in the figures, but actually not necessarily being in the kinds of courses that would result in real long-term benefits. [But note: the baseline report shows there has been a slight increase in multiple enrolments in the latest year.]

These numbers – and the ministerial language – deserved more than a day or two of political set-to.  Here’s some reasons why (the first two I’ve not seen covered: the last is far from new).

Learning hours are falling

More FTEs ought to mean – in simple terms – that there’s more learning being supported in total.

So a surprising figure buried in the statistics is a fall in the total “number of learning hours” over recent years.  These are defined as  the “hours of learning required to complete the course”. These hours totaled 81,032,840 in 2006-07, peaked at 84,048,520 in 2011-12, but by 2014-15 had fallen to 76,323,551 (Table B here).

There is some discussion of this at pp 24-25 here. Some swapping around between SFC and SDS is part of story  but this – evidently assumed important, as  it is described twice, at para 57 and 61 – appears to have been a one year, in-year effect only.   A drop between 2010-11 and 2011-12 was due to a rethink round school age children – but the large drop again in 2012-13 is not explained.  The overall impression from the description is that this fall is a real effect.

Working out the total hours of learning per FTE in 2006-07 and 2014-15 using the figures at Table B produces the odd result that in 2006-07 there was an average of 670 learning hours per FTE , which had fallen to 630 in 2014-15, implying that an FTE required 6% less learning hours. This doesn’t match anything elsewhere in the text and may turn out to be a daft calculation: but it’s not so at first sight. I’d at least like to understand why it’s misconceived, if it is.

Frustratingly, a later section promising information on learning hours by gender (p27-28) in its subtitle and opening paragraph does not actually include any information on that. But the same section does make it clear that there’s been a particular fall in enrolments by women.



Separate SFC statistics (the Performance Indicators) provide some pretty detailed information on retention.  It tends to be worse on longer courses, or put another way people are more likely to complete a short course in full –  no great surprise.  It would be interesting – but beyond the capacity of this site – to look at how far there’s any sign of a relationship between the move to longer courses and the retention data, which appears to have dipped a bit this year.

Table 11 provides figures for retention for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds on courses over 160 hours – but the document doesn’t seem to provide an all-student average retention for this particular set of courses with which to compare, which makes the figures of limited use.

“Substantive” courses

The language is very telling.  A substantive course appears to be one which as far as possible requires a significant commitment of time and is geared towards getting an accredited qualification.  If we were previously not supplying as many opportunities for such study as students wanted, then it’s hard to argue with providing more.

But at whose expense has this been done?

The characterisation of what’s been lost as insubstantial sounds like the death knell of a philosophy of lifelong learning and second chances.  Here are a couple of important groups of people who are now less well provided for, particularly in an era where local authority funding for adult education will be under massive pressure:

  • those who didn’t do so well at school and need to improve their skills, but are daunted by formal education and can only cope with small commitments, step by step,
  • those who cannot afford to give up much time or take on long commitments, because they have caring responsibilities, can’t afford to chuck in their job and/or have unpredictable home lives.

To me, that looks like a description of plenty of people, especially women, in their 30s, 40s and 50s, who weren’t well-served by the school system in the past.  The sort of short educational opportunities likeliest to work best for many of them are now officially “not substantive”.  The particularly large fall in female enrolments is evidence of that, as is that the hours of learning provided to those 25 or older have fallen from 27m in 2006-07 to 21m in the latest year. There is still access to learning provision (here’s Edinburgh College’s relevant brochure) but I can’t immediately see anything in these publications which shows how the scale of this sort of provision has changed. That’s a problem: the rhetoric encourages us to assume all the loss is the dreaded “leisure” (however defined), but it’s not possible to pin down from all this data the actual content of the provision that’s gone.


The educational philosophy at work here is not only aggressively employment focussed (nothing here about improving general well-being, especially for those beyond working age), it appears to be focussed almost entirely on preparation for employment for people in the mood for long-form, full-time courses, who are most likely to be younger.

Improving access to full-time FE and HE for young people to improve their employment prospects is a reasonable policy.  But the SG has got away remarkably lightly with dismissing the opportunities lost at the same time for other groups as insubstantial.  The lost courses are sometimes dismissed (with a somewhat ageist, sexist whiff) as flower-arranging. That’s lazy and underplays the multiple ways people need to be able to engage with learning over their lives and the personal, social and economic benefits of their doing so.  The SFC notes that  only 3% of “learning hours” now don’t lead to a recognised qualification (para 7). But in 2005-06 it was just 9%: FE colleges were never awash with non-accredited oasis and gypsophila.

Meanwhile, more people are being channeled onto courses which require more staying power –  that will work much better for some than others. And something worth explaining has happened in the total learning hours.

FE – previously a garden of  many flowers – appears to be becoming much more of a monoculture, designed to suit a rather narrower range of students than before. It fits increasingly into the “big school” idea of tertiary education with which the present Scottish Government seems most comfortable –  something visible in its student funding policies too.

And for those now largely shut out of the garden and provided with no other? Your needs are not “substantive”. Sorry.








Where is Tom Lehrer when you need him?

Over the past week or so I have hit my Tom Lehrer moment.  Fans of Lehrer will recall he declared satire obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

First I read the report of the Commons Committee which considered the abolition of grant in England. Then I followed the opposition debate at Westminster on the same topic.  And felt that critiquing student funding policy in Scotland seemed to have become an unusually pointless exercise.

MPs representing the SNP at Westminster are against grant cuts, which is right. So am I. But there we part company. Because while they are only against grant cuts for students in England, I am against them in Scotland as well.

What chance does anyone stand when members of the governing party in Scotland which in 2013 cut grants for the poorest by 40% without any parliamentary scrutiny or even a press notice, have designed as a result a system in which the poorest are expected to end up borrowing the most, facing a debt after four years of up to £27,000,  argued that the loans replacing them were just as good and vigorously rubbished any critics (I speak from experience), can go to Westminster and say things like ….

Let us make no mistake: this is an attack on the poor. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who is no longer in his place, asked whether poor people could not simply take out loans. Well of course they can, and, by the way, they are more used to doing so than many Conservative Members are. But the real question is this: is it fair that people from the poorest backgrounds should have to take on more debt to get the same opportunities as their counterparts in well-off families? That is iniquitous, and we should not tolerate it. (Tommy Shepherd MP)

I was one of five who all managed to go to university and got grants throughout that time. For my family it would have been impossible for us to access a university educationWhen there is less family support, the financial support offered by a grant becomes a lifeline. Students can of course apply for loans to support them through their course, and many do, but we have to understand that loans are not viewed the same by children from different backgrounds. For families living under the constant threat of debt, for whom life is a continual battle to survive between meagre wage packets, the decision to take out a loan, incurring further debt, is extremely difficult, and often it is one that they just cannot take. (Carol Monaghan MP)

Is he as concerned as me, first, that the Government are increasingly using this device to sneak through their most controversial legislative proposals without debate? (Chris Stephens MP)

This process is unacceptable—the lack of consultation, the lack of due process and the lack of understanding of the measure’s consequences for students in Scotland, particularly the poorest students who, as Opposition Members said earlier, will be adversely affected…. Because the poorest students will now be receiving maintenance loans, rather than grants, they will come out with more debt than their richer colleagues, which is absolutely appalling…  It is an absolutely appalling circumstance, and it is creating an even more indebted generation than the one before it.  It is ridiculous. The impact in Scotland will be greater, because we have four-year degrees rather than three-year degrees as in England.  …Our students in Scotland deserve support, particularly where, due to demographic differences, they have not yet had the chance to go to university because they are put off by loans. …(Alison Thewliss MP)

without any hint of irony – or any apparent concern that anyone in the media will ask them awkward questions (they so far appear to have been largely right about that)?  And be supported in doing so by the representative organisation of students in Scotland, which shares their peculiar asymmetry of geographical concern.

But there are 50,000 students from the lowest income households in Scotland each year who have so far lost £100m in grant funding and are therefore  facing additional hardship, or more often greater debt than their wealthier contemporaries,  as a result.  No-one who has clout with the Scottish Government is speaking on their behalves – not the MPs and MSPs from the governing party and not their union.  They are apparently only interested in what’s happening to grant for poorer students from England.

In the face of so much altruism, those of us with more merely local concerns are obliged to plug on. And listen to a lot of Tom Lehrer.







Grants – an unavoidable victim of cuts to the SG budget?

In the course of discussions on Twitter over the past few days about the SG’s decision to cut grants in 2013, the most challenging bit of the argument – for me – has come down to whether the cuts to student grants are a consequence of pressure on the Scottish Block.  If so, it’s argued, they were beyond the SG’s control and therefore they cannot be blamed for them (they could still be blamed for making the cut in secret, denying it and putting down any critics with extreme prejudice – but that’s a different story).

I get this argument. My local council is about to do some unpleasantly drastic things and I attribute much of the blame for that to cuts in its central government-set budget and the freeze on it raising new money through local tax. So I want to give the budget point a proper response that can’t be done in 140 characters.

My essential argument is that the SG had choices and that the decision to target grants for large cuts was not at all inevitable.

Between 2012-13 and 2013-14, the SG had to manage a total cash budget (known as “DEL resource”) which was increasing slightly in cash terms but falling by 1.1% in real terms (source SPICe).

In 2012-13 Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) had a cash budget of £325.9m, used for non-repayable awards (aka grants) and tuition fees for students in higher education. It was expected to pay around 30% of that as non-repayable awards (largely the two main means-tested maintenance grants, Young Student Bursary and Independent Student Bursary) and the rest to universities and colleges in Scotland for fees.

For 2013-14, the Scottish Government decided to reduce the planned cash budget for SAAS to £302.4m (a 9.5% real terms fall).  The decision was taken to apply the whole cut to means-tested bursaries (hereafter grants for short): those had a total value of around £90m in 2012-13.  The cut made was big enough not only to protect the size of the remaining fee pot, but to allow it to grow a bit, by around £10m.  So the cut to grants  ended up being a bit over £35m, or 42% in real terms.

What were the alternatives to cutting grants in 2013-14?

Different choices in the SAAS budget

SAAS’s spending on fees could have taken some or all of the hit, rather than being 100% protected and indeed allowed to grow.

That would have meant either:

  • just reducing the money passed to universities by SAAS. But the government clearly wasn’t prepared at that point to cut the money going to universities at all.  The opposite in fact: it was particularly keen in autumn 2012 to show that free tuition was not detrimental  to Scottish  universities.  University funding from the Funding Council rose from £1,002.2m to £1041.6m between 2012-13 and 2013-14 (+1.4% real terms).   At the same time, the sector was able to raise extra money by recruiting as many rUK students as it could, charging them fees of up to £9,000.

The other option was:

  • getting better-off students to plug the gap in  university income, by paying a fee. So instead of robbing poorer Peter, asking better-off Paul to take the hit instead. If the cost of the £35m SAAS  saving had been spread across all those getting free tuition, it would have worked out at £300 per head a year, or something like £1000 per head if sought only from the wealthiest third.   The SG could have offered a fee loan to defer the short-term pressure, as it does for those going south to study  (it had enough loan to spare, so that wouldn’t have been a problem).   In fairness, this would have needed new legislation which couldn’t have been done in time for 2013: but there’s been time since. But  of course this was right off the agenda (and then some),  another straight political choice.

So, because  university fee payments were fully  ring-fenced from any cut, that left means-tested grants – and therefore the poorest students – fully exposed to the whole hit on the SAAS budget.

They were made more vulnerable  by the SG’s ability to backfill the grant cut with ever-growing amounts of student loan arriving from the Treasury under Barnett. Ministers tried to present the substitute loan as being just the same.  Only it’s evidently not.  We can see a substantial minority of the poorest just don’t want to borrow – around one-quarter of students who try to get by on grant alone just took an immediate hit on their income. And in the long-term, for those who have borrowed more, this extra debt will still have to be paid back from their earnings: a de facto  future stealth tax on having been poorer than other students, once upon a time.

Another possibility might have been to avoid cutting SAAS at all and let another area of spending take the hit.

Across the Education brief

Governments tend to budget in “ministerial portfolio” chunks, so there will have been potential in theory for some trade-offs across all the things funded via the education budget. But the scope for finding a few more tens of millions there  was probably  limited, given that FE colleges were already taking quite a hit, while school funding  is handled separately in the local government grant.

Across the SG

So was there absolutely nothing anywhere else in the SG’s budget which was less important than keeping grant levels up (and debt levels down) for the poorest students in HE?  Apparently not, even though the amount at stake was very small in the SG’s overall £26,000m budget.  £35m was a small proportion even of the typical annual underspend.

The biggest and most controversial choice made by the Scottish Government in recent years has been to fund a freeze in the council tax.  This has only been possible by using  a lot of money that would otherwise have been available for other things.  In the current year it’s costing £560m to fund the freeze –  in effect, funding the freeze is now having an “opportunity cost” equivalent to  more than closing down the entire FE sector.  In practice of course this has been met not by one major shut down, but by lots of smaller things foregone.

That £560m – would be £630m next year – is a lot of money no longer available for hospitals, FE colleges, or student grants, and now doing no more than back-filling a hole in the public finances caused by the freeze.  I belong firmly in the camp which argues the freeze has benefitted the well-off the most (see my evidence to the Finance Committee SRIT for Finance Cttee June 2015).  I am happy to see the SG’s poverty adviser seems to agree – along with a lot of other people.  I speak as someone who’s a classic  small-income-relative to-house-size gainer from the freeze.

Not available in 2013, but an option from 2016-17 is using new income tax powers.  Again, I’m firmly in the camp which argues – and demonstrates by running the detailed sums – that the SRIT is a progressive tax which hits harder as income rises (see my Finance Committee brief, but also the rather more expert David Eisner).

So what would I have chosen instead of grant cuts? On my limited knowledge of the SG’s budget, I can already see several alternatives which should appeal more than grant cuts to a sense of social justice.  The barriers to these alternatives were purely political – they were choices about what to prioritise.

Low income students, and specifically their future earnings, turned out to be one of the softest political targets. The same political logic appears to be at work (and rightly being condemned) in England.  A relatively easy choice politically compared to others? Yes.  A fair and socially just choice? No. Avoidable? Yes to that too.

That’s the argument which underpins my position that the Scottish Government can’t be let off responsibility for the large cuts it has applied to student grants (let’s leave the handling to one side).  It decided to cut the SAAS budget harder than its total budget, and to land those cuts entirely on the element used exclusively for grants for low income students, which were cut almost 40 times harder in real terms than the SG cash budget as a whole.


Sources for SAAS budget

Here’s the 2013-14 budget proposals: Table 5.06 for university funding (SFC HE Programme) and 5.07 for  “Student support and tuition fee payments”

Here’s the 2012-13 actual spending on grant by SAAS (Table 10 here)  and the 2013-14 figures (Table A9 here).


The good thing about Twitter …

I started very sceptical about Twitter.  But I’ve come round to it, not because it’s always good to find a few people who agree with you (though it is)  – but because of the opposite thing.  It’s on Twitter that I’ve come across people who disagree with me about student funding, grants, debt etc and are willing to argue about that persistently and robustly but respectfully, too.  In the past week particularly I’ve been been struck by the people who’ve really put time into getting to grips with what can look like a very tricky area. And I’ve found people who agree with me about grants, debt etc but probably don’t agree with me a about a lot of other things.  And all that’s been stimulating and made me think.  Not change my mind, mind you.  I’m only human.

It’s been interesting to discover  that I can’t take the argument very far at all with anyone who only wants to talk about fees. There’s also a limit to how far it’s possible for me to go with someone who’s inclined to play down the issue of grant cuts (so, for example, arguing that poorer students can live at home or get a job or won’t always be poor – which are arguments that have cropped up): we just don’t have enough common ground for a satisfying discussion  on either side.  But it is possible to have a really dense, difficult discussion with anyone who wants to go into the subject of what choices the SG should make faced with a difficult budget – and recognises that cutting student grants is potentially a significant  sort of choice.    I owe one of you  in particular a blog post about all that – it’s half-written, bear with me. (Update: now here.)

I’m not sure anyone’s mind is getting changed here, but making people agree with you about everything is not the whole point of policy debate.  Sometimes it’s just about carving a space where people can have informed, civilised disagreement and learn more about what matters to their fellow citizens, and sharpen their own thinking and arguments.  Against all stereotypes, Twitter is providing the only place I’m aware of in Scotland where that is happening in relation to student funding.  So thank-you to everyone who’s chipped in from every perspective and kept it civil, including those who I suspect have found me a pretty frustrating person to deal with.

All this will be a bit Pollyanna for some. But I spend a lot of my time being grumpy.  I’m allowed to go the other way sometimes too.