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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).

Timing

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: https://www.ucas.com/sites/default/files/app_level_report_2015-dr2_038_01.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Footnotes

  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.

 

 

Note 

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.

 

Footnote:

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.

Footnote

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.

 

Retention

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.

Conclusion

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.

Student grant in Scotland: a catch-up

There’s a lot of coverage right now of the plans to abolish grant is England.  This post is as reminder of how the 40% grant cuts in Scotland in 2013-14 were constructed and handled and what they have meant for students.

The details are in the table below is an updated version of one I did last year, which included comparative material on England, which I’ve left in for interest.

In the context of the current debate about England, the most salient points are:

  • total spending on grant for low-income students was cut in Scotland in 2013-14 by 40%: some students lost over £1,600 a year.
  • there was no announcement, to the Scottish Parliament or anyone else:  the relevant  press notice covering other changes happening at the same time was indefensibly silent about this, and there is still no official statement that admits this happened. Letters to students did not explain that their grant was lower because of changes to the rules. The government continues to deal robustly, let’s say, with anyone who raises that this happened.
  • as well as less being spent, fewer students are now receiving an income-related grant in Scotland – the reasons for this are unclear and it is surprising, given that other data shows some increase in the numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • the NUS in Scotland were enthusiastic about the changes (and like government talked up the changes and avoided attention being drawn to grant cuts), which they were involved with designing, on the basis that even though grant was rising, a large increase in living cost support was being provided at the same time, across the income range, using loans.  By contrast, NUS in England has not been persuaded to subscribe to grant reductions by the (even higher) loan-based living cost support being provided there as part of the change.
  • fees in England mean debt is much higher there – but with a black irony this means that in practice these grant cuts will have less impact pro rata  in practice than those that have been implemented in Scotland, because, as the IFS has shown, so many grant-eligible students in England were already unlikely to pay off their loan before it was written off under a time bar.

 

Scotland England
Timing From August 2013 From August 2016
Students affected Changes were applied to all students, including those already in system Changes will affect new starts only, other than changes to loan repayment threshold (see below).
Grant 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Means-tested grants substantially reduced, with cuts of up to 100%, depending on students’ income and whether young or mature. Overall reduction of around 40%. Means-tested grants will be entirely abolished.
Maximum reduced from £2,640 to £1,750.For those below max, gradually tapered system replaced with step-change reductions, with students getting £1,000 or £500, depending on income. Largest loss £1,640, losses either side £1,000 common.

From 2015-16, entitlement in middle band rises to £1,125 and max entitlement rises to £1,875.

Maximum of £3,387 in 2015-16. For those below max, system is currently tapered, with entitlements falling gradually as income rises.
Spending on means-tested grants fell by 40% following changes, from £89m in 2012-13 to £53m in 2013-14. In 2014-15, it was £52m.  It should be higher in 2015-16, as a small increase (£125 pa for some students) was applied this year.

 

 

 

In 2012-13, 51,500 students claimed an income-related grant; slightly over 49,000 did in 2014-15, a fall the reasons for which are not immediately clear.

 

No equivalent to the university provided system of support in England. Some institutions have income-related schemes, but looking at individual university websites strongly suggests they will collectively provide a relatively marginal level of support to Scottish students, but there is no national data collected on how much is spent.

Spending  will fall over the 4 year period from 2016-17, and should be de minimis by 2020.At £1.6bn, spending on national grants in England is currently around three times higher than in Scotland, pro rata size. It will be at a similar level in both countries by 2017-18, before falling further in England to zero.

Around 550,000 students get a maintenance grant, broadly  pro rata the number in Scotland on population terms (it’s a slightly higher proportion of the student population, probably as grant is  currently available to a higher income level).

 

These figures exclude the system of institution-provided non-repayable funding in cash and kind (mainly bursaries and fee waivers) overseen by OFFA, which institutions are required to provide.  Spending on these is forecast to be £399m in 2016-17  (para 25 here), likely to be about two-thirds pro rata the residual national Scottish grant. This system will continue, although for how long at this level is not predictable.

 

Thresholds Threshold for max support was reduced from £19,300 to £16,999 (rising back to £18,999 from August 2016).Upper threshold was left unchanged at £33,999. Threshold for maximum support will be maintained in 2016-17 at £25,000.Upper threshold for grant currently around £42,000: will no longer be relevant.  Not yet clear how loan entitlements will reduce at  incomes above £25,000.
Loan (entitlements) Loan replaced lost grant Loan will replace lost grant
Further loan was made available to increase total living cost support in real terms. Minimum loan increased from just under £1,000 to £4,500 (now £4,750). Further loan will be made available to increase total living cost support in real terms. Minimum loan previously £3,610: no suggestion as yet that this will rise.
Total value of support (grant plus loan) Maximum support (away from home) increased by 13.6% .In 2015-16, maximum, whether living at home or away and regardless of place of study, will be £7,625.Falls to £6,875 at £19,000; £6,250 at £24,000; £4,750 at £34,000.Figures for 2016-17 not yet available. Maximum support (away from home) increased by  13.1%.In 2016-17,  maximum if living away will be £8,200. Max will be £10,702 for those in London.  Living at home max will be £6,904.Applies at incomes up to £25,000. Not yet clear what figures will apply above that.
Debt distribution Regressive: highest debt now expected at lowest incomes. Regressive: highest debt will now be expected at lowest incomes.
Total debt 4-year degree debt at lowest incomes of £28,000 (mature) or £24,000 (young student), including interest. Expected 3-year degree debt of around £53,000 at lowest incomes (young and mature).
Loan (repayment rules) No change was made to rules for the repayment threshold in 2013.The threshold is £17,335 in 2015-16, and will continue to rise in line with earnings.It should reach the cash value of the current threshold used in England in around five or six years. Loan repayment threshold, currently £21,000, to be frozen for five years, rather than rising in line with average earnings as originally promised.
Students affected All. UK govt consulting on whether to apply threshold freeze only to new entrants or to all those who have taken out a loan since 2012: seems likely to be applied to all.
Likelihood borrowing will actually be repaid Relatively high, due to smaller overall total and relatively low repayment threshold. Relatively low, largely due to scale of sums involved, although freezing the repayment threshold will increase how much is repaid (by around £6,000). Freeze means that by around 2021/22, repayment threshold will no longer be lower in Scotland.
Form of announcement and parliamentary approval Press release on changes to student support from 2013-14 issued 22 August 2012 making no reference to grant cuts or reduction in threshold for max support, and concentrating on increase in total combined max value of loan/grant support. No announcement of student support changes to the Scottish Parliament. No legislation of any kind was required. SG has yet to officially acknowledge grants were reduced in 2013 (only Ministerial comment to parliament has been to suggest there had been no cuts to grants, though this was formally corrected later). Changes to loans and grants announced to parliament in budget on 8 July, followed by a detailed ministerial written statement on 9 July.

Requires parliamentary approval, but has been delegated to committee in Commons, which met on 14 January.

 

Reaction
Parliament/opposition parties Opposition debate June 2013 and various opposition PQs: criticism from Conservatives, LibDems and Labour (not Greens). No parliamentary approval required for changes.  Early day motion opposing grant cuts, with signatories so far from Labour, Lib Dems, SDLP, DUP and SNP.  Greens have started a petition on 38 Degrees. There are plans for an opposition debate.
NUS Very positive, addressing only the general increase in living cost support,telling members “Take some time today to celebrate and reflect on what a huge win this is, one that will fundamentally change the lives of so many of our members. … Today is a great day for the student movement in Scotland, so take some time to savour it.” Very critical.
BBC Has never reported grant cuts in Scotland; repeated terms of SG news release in August 2012. Did report grant increase of £125 announced in May 2015. Various pieces on planned grants cuts and loan repayment increase.
Press No reporting of grant cuts until  opposition identified the plans in October 2012 (picked up  by Scotsman only). More coverage since summer 2013, prompted by work by this author. Extensive coverage of grant cuts immediately after announcement and of trails of announcement in preceding month.
Independent think tanks/commissions No analysis or reaction to changes in Scotland in almost three years since they came to light. Briefing note from IFS on impact of changes in England published on 21 July 2015.Comment on effect of grant cuts in report from Independent Commission on Fees on 30 July 2015.
Other Report commissioned from this author (a freelance researcher) as part of ESRC-funded project in early 2014, after self-publishing. Mainly so far on the Critical Education site, run by freelance research Dr Andrew McGettigan.

Sauce for the goose?

Here’s a tale of central government apparently insulating itself from risks it expects other parts of the public services to take, without making that clear, or meeting any scrutiny along the way.

In August 2012, the Scottish Government announced with considerable hype that it was “simplifying” student support from 2013-14. Despite that, by 2014-15 the actual cost of running the Student Awards Agency Scotland had risen by nearly two-thirds, compared to two years before. The number of students receiving support rose by 3% over the same period.

Below are what the annual budget figures have set out for SAAS operating costs, plus what has been more quietly done by way of in-year top-ups, using  spring and autumn budget revisions (all figures in £m).  Very striking here is how different are the spring budget revisions, which ought to reflect as closely as possible the expected outturn, from the figures initially put to the Parliament for 2013-14 and 2014-15.

Striking also is how substantial budget revisions are subsequently ignored:  annual budgets consistently present the unrevised figure for the previous year as the baseline. So the 2015-16 baseline in the most recent draft budget is given as £10.3m, reflecting none of the top-up of 2014-15 to £15.1m, which the Parliament eventually voted for last spring. Technically, the budget is proposing a one-third cut from where things are but (a) that isn’t how it looks and (b) on past form, neither is that likely to be the real plan. But it might be. Or maybe a smaller cut.  We can’t tell.

2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17
Annual budget Draft 8.7 10.3 10.3 10.3
Final 8.4 8.7 10.3 10.3 ?
Autumn/Spring (in-year) revisions 10.3/11.7 10.7/15.1 11.7/? ?/?

Here’s the actual spending the SAAS annual accounts record (£m again).

2012-13 2013-14 2014-15
Staff 4.804 6.824 8.418
Other administrative costs 2.863 3.675 4.949
Amortisation and depreciation 0.976 1.004 1.007
Total 8.616 11.503 14.374
Staff costs breakdown:
Salaries and wages 3.888 4.414 5.289
Social security costs 0.247 0.281 0.34
Other pensions costs 0.629 0.724 0.847
Agency staff 0.22 1.425 1.942

The most recent SAAS accounts explain what is behind the rise (p10):

Having focused on resourcing our front line customer service
during 2013‑2014, this focus on capacity building has continued
into 2014‑2015 but with a greater emphasis on strengthening
our back office functions and reviewing the overall shape
and structure of the Agency. This has required us to run two
significant recruitment campaigns for administrative and entry
level management staff and we’ve strengthened the senior
leadership capability within the Agency with the recruitment
of three new executive posts at SG C2 grade. In doing so,
we have now created four Director posts designed to better
reflect, in particular to our external stakeholders, the scope
and responsibility of these roles.
Elsewhere, the accounts attribute some of the increase in non-staff costs in 2014-15 to one-off relocation costs.
I want to stress at this point that this extra spending sounds potentially well-justified.  SAAS has had troubles in the past: delayed payments in 2012 led to high-profile  political fuss and  a review. That review found that
SAAS has insufficient resource in core functions
and that
Resource was undoubtedly a serious constraint. The Review heard that
SAAS had requested additional resource in 2010 and battled hard to avoid a proposed operating budget cut of 10%-15% in the same year. We do not doubt that the context of public sector financial pressure suppressed active consideration of the need for a major “step change” investment in SAAS capacity and capability to match emerging expectations. At the same time, we struggled to find evidence that the shortfall between resource demand and resource supply had been articulated clearly and escalated sufficiently.
and that
Permanent staffing should be augmented through exploring outsourcing (Processing, Contact Centre and IT)
Things have been much smoother since, a relocation happened last year without any evident problems  and the agency is generally (it’s my impression) well-regarded by the people who deal with it.

 

But these figures draw out two important points.  First, achieving good public services costs money behind the scenes.  At a time of squeezed public spending, what get called back-office functions are often seen as an easy source of savings – until something goes wrong.  The management of police call handling feels like an obvious recent case in point.

The case of SAAS seems to illustrate that the value of investing in administration is more likely to be recognised in some contexts than others.  Student support has  a coherent,  articulate, relatively advantaged set of users able to generate a sense of urgent problems (another factor the review noted was the role of social media in generating awareness and concern about late payments):  many other services are not so lucky. Also,  where administrators do not work alongside professions attracting political kudos – police officers, doctors, nurses, teachers (etc) – perhaps their essential contribution is more  likely to be recognised. Watch out for manifestos written as though various professionals don’t need adequate support from less sound-bite friendly workers. Last, the importance of investing in administration appears to be recognised more  readily for public services that report direct to Ministers than those which do not.

The other thing  illustrated here is how poor scrutiny is of the day-to-day machinery of government.  The rising cost of administering the student support system has received no serious attention in the last couple of budgets.  Nor has the Parliament complained about the annual budget figures being presented to it by the Scottish Government failing to reflect autumn revisions or now being well adrift from what is actually being spent. Put briefly, the budget figure of £10.3m for 2016-17 is 28% less than actual spending of £14.4m in 2014-15.   The autumn revision for 2015-16 of £11.7m is different again from both of these.  None of this is set out clearly anywhere or the implications discussed.  That all feels unsatisfactory.

I have only just come across these figures, by accident, and  was hesitant about posting them, because  a story of rising administrative costs easily becomes a knock-about political issue, worth a day or two’s headlines and grief for the officials involved: provoking that is emphatically not the intention here. But I do think these numbers tell an important story about the cost of providing decent public services and the selectivity with which that is recognised, while illustrating how poor the bread and butter scrutiny of government is in Scotland and how the government contributes to that situation.

There was a chance here for government and parliament to promote a debate about how running public services to the standard users expect can sometimes mean investing in the sort of jobs routinely dismissed as bureaucracy. But that debate’s not happening and that’s to be regretted. Instead, with local tax remaining frozen and income tax powers parked, local government  and other bodies seem assumed able to pare to the minimum their administrative and support functions,  while protecting their more  politically interesting “front-line staff”.  Central government is taking no such risks with public services on which Ministers have recently felt the immediate heat, it turns out.

Sources

Budget documents

Budget revisions
SAAS accounts

 

 

 

 

 

Another number that’s not quite what it seems: HE participation rates in Scotland to age 30

The graph left shows the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) for the most disadvantaged 20% of the population in Scotland between 2006-07 and 2013-14.   The green bars show the HEIPR for entry into college-level higher education (almost all of this will be at HN-level).  The blue bars show the HEIPR for higher education institutions in Scotland (mainly universities and mainly degrees). The black stubs are entry into HEIs in the rest of the UK.

The HEIPR measures the initial entry rate into higher education for people between 16 and 30.  It’s a useful number, because it covers not only school leavers but those working their way into the system in their 20s, maybe after initial difficulty at school.  How it’s calculated is explained in a footnote below, with the full figures.

The HEIPR numbers

As this earlier post noted, since October, under pressure over rising student debt and grant cuts, the Scottish Government has developed an enthusiasm for the HEIPR.   The Cabinet Secretary for Education used it as one of her main positive statistics in broadcast interviews in late October and early November, noting that in 2013-14 the participation rate in higher education for those from the most deprived areas in Scotland was 42%, compared to 35% in 2006-07. The First Minister alluded to a general increase in the HEIPR for this group at FMQs on 3 December. The Commission on Widening Access also gave some prominence to the same numbers in its interim report, published in mid-November.

What these headline figures do not reveal is that – as the graph clearly shows – 90% of the increase  in entry rates for those from most disadvantaged backgrounds was due to study in FE colleges, which is pretty much entirely at HN level.  Rates of direct entry into universities for this group grew very little between 2006-07 and 2013-14.

That matters, because the FM’s access target and the Commission’s remit are both unambiguously framed in terms of entry to university.

For university (HEI) entry in Scotland, the increase was from 15.1% to 15.9%.  Nor – again, as the graph shows – was that a steady trend.  There’s been growth over the past two years, but between 2008 and 2011, this number actually fell, so that by 2011 it was lower than it had been in 2006.

What the HEIPR for HEIs doesn’t capture – but no-one knows

The numbers eventually getting to university will be higher than seen here. That’s because people who do an HN and then move immediately to university are only counted at initial entry into an FE college, to avoid double-counting individuals (though people who have a break of more than six months between an HN and a degree will appear in the HEI entry figures).

The Commission on Widening Access interim report (p63) identified that 1,729 people from the most disadvantaged 20% moved from an HN to a university course in 2013-14.   However, movement from HN to degree is not identical to movement from college to university, as some HN provision is already in universities.  In some HEIs, the first and/or second year of certain degree courses may be designated as an HN.    In 2013-14 2,260 students qualified from HN courses in Scottish HEIs (Table 33 here): that was only 11% of the total of those with HNs, but they will have a higher than average likelihood of movement to a degree.

Frustratingly, for all the prominence given to college as a gateway to university, neither the Commission nor the government has so far produced figures which shed light on what proportion of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds move from college to university (my back of an envelope calculation is that it could be between one-third and a half) or – importantly in this context – how much the number has changed over time. One issue here is the lack of a way of tracking individuals as they move through different parts the Scottish education system. The contract for the longitudinal Scottish School Leavers’ Survey was allowed to lapse in 2007 and recommendations for a replacement made in 2008 have never been acted upon: “the lack of any replacement has led to a significant data gap … such a resource would appear to be a  crucial part of the evidence base” (ScotCen, 2012).  Nor is there a Scottish equivalent to the Unique Learner Number. 

Why the HEIPR still matters

In any case, by measuring which door people walk through first, the HEIPR tells us something important.  Start HE at college and a whole host of subjects will not be available to you at first, such as law, which was the First Minister’s springboard to later success.  Switching to non-HN subjects later will mean one or more extra years’ study, for the people least able to afford that.  As the Commission (p64) has noted:

[there is] a clear trend that in the more selective institutions a large majority of those admitted with HN qualifications begin in first year. Effectively this means that these students, despite having already achieved an HE qualification, must start from scratch. In the case of students with an HND, this means remaining at the same level of study for up to a further 2 years. Here, the possible academic and financial duplication is clear.

This evidence has led some researchers to argue that this two-tiered approach to articulation is contributing to a social stratification of higher education. As things stand, students from deprived backgrounds who enter university through the college appear at a significant disadvantage to those who enter through more traditional routes, especially in terms of the most selective institutions and courses.

It would therefore be an important shift, if we’ve moved from a position where those from the most deprived backgrounds were around 25% more likely to go to college than university in 2006-07, to one where they are now nearly 60% more likely to go down the college route.  We would have expanded overall opportunity, but with a real risk of reinforcing perceptions that college rather than university is the “normal” post-school route for this group  – with all the limitations and/or extra costs that carries for students who in a more equitable system and with the right support could have managed fine going direct to a degree course.

Why we should have known this sooner

How difficult was it to obtain these numbers? Not at all.  After recently reducing how much HEIPR detail it published spontaneously, the Scottish Funding Council committed itself to providing further breakdowns on request, which in this case it was able to do very quickly.

Yet, as far as I can tell, none of those who made use of the headline “35% to 42%” figure had asked how it broke down between different types of provision, suggesting a surprising absence of curiosity about a fundamental point.

As ever, it has to be said that HN-level HE can be a great option for many people. But it’s not what the government is committed to increasing or the Commission charged with thinking about.

These figures show that over the past eight years very little progress has been made in increasing the proportion of people from the most deprived backgrounds who go directly into university by the age of 30. Indeed, at times, that figure has actually gone backwards.  That’s an important finding: in a world where those in positions of power and influence are keen to quote the HEIPR, it shouldn’t depend on one somewhat grumpy but inquisitive blogger to make that clear.

 

Footnote

Here are the full figures provided by the SFC

HEIPR by institution type, 2006-07 to 2013-14, for entrants from an MD20 area (prior to study)
Number of Entrants* Overall Scottish HEIs Scottish Further Education Colleges Higher Education Institutions in Rest of UK
2006 5,159 34.6% 15.1% 19.1% 0.4%
2007 5,101 34.3% 15.5% 18.5% 0.3%
2008 5,374 36.0% 16.1% 19.4% 0.5%
2009 5,651 38.2% 15.8% 21.9% 0.5%
2010 5,771 39.4% 15.0% 23.7% 0.6%
2011 5,577 38.7% 14.2% 23.9% 0.7%
2012 5,572 39.0% 15.4% 23.3% 0.2%
2013 5,891 41.7% 15.9% 25.4% 0.4%
Sources: Scottish Funding Council, HESA, National Records for Scotland
*not all entrants could be matched to a deprivation quintile

This is how the HEIPR is explained by the SFC (p28 here).  Looking at the table showing how the published number is calculated is probably the easiest way to understand the underlying calculation.

The Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) roughly equates to the probability that a 16 year old will participate in Higher Education by the age of 30.  The Scottish HEIPR, displayed in Table M, is a measure of all initial entrants aged between 16 and 30 (inclusive).  The measure does not show the proportion currently participating, the proportion continuing beyond the first six months, or those who successfully complete a course. It measures access to higher education and is suitable for comparison with measures in other countries. Key strengths of these rates, compared to simple student statistics, are that these participation rates are more inclusive and better recognise the importance of lifelong learning.
The initial participation rates for each age group (16 to 30) in scope of this calculation are summed to give the HEIPR.
Table M: Scottish Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) by Age 2012-13 and 2013-14
2012-13 2013-14
Age Initial Entrants Population Initial Participation Rate Initial Entrants Population Initial Participation Rate Year-on-Year Change in HEIPR
16    1,006        61,590 1.6%    1,061        61,362 1.7%
17     9,552        62,117 15.4%     9,569          61,868 15.5%
18   13,174        65,042 20.3%   13,039          63,905 20.4%
19     3,882        68,273 5.7%     3,911          67,369 5.8%
20     1,722        73,514 2.3%     1,688          69,697 2.4%
21     1,199        76,082 1.6%     1,148          74,680 1.5%
22          899        74,210 1.2%          938          76,895 1.2%
23          737        72,919 1.0%          781          74,243 1.1%
24          738        73,017 1.0%          701          72,573 1.0%
25          614        71,332 0.9%          616          72,826 0.8%
26          596        70,484 0.8%          598          71,143 0.8%
27          542        69,857 0.8%          534          70,361 0.8%
28          546        67,971 0.8%          511          69,909 0.7%
29          477        68,242 0.7%          443          68,013 0.7%
30        412        69,380 0.6%          417        68,417 0.6%
16-30   36,096 1,044,029 54.7% 35,955   1,043,260 55.0%
Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and National Records of Scotland (NRS)

 

 

Average annual student borrowing across the UK 2014-15: Scotland’s claim to lowest debt under challenge

The Student Loans Company has now produced (on 2 December) the annual student support statistics for the England, Northern Ireland and Wales.  The Scottish figures came out in October from the Student Awards Agency Scotland. They show that attempts to distinguish the Scottish system as producing substantially lower debt than all other parts of the UK are not supported by the numbers.

Average debt across all incomes

Here are the figures for annual average borrowing in 2014-15. A further column has been added, which projects that debt over 3 or 4 years, as appropriate.

Average annual borrowing Hons degree-length implied
x3 E/NI/W;   x4 S
England 10,370 31,110
Northern Ireland 6,820 20,460
Scotland 5,270 21,080
Wales 6,370 19,110
Sources: For SLC data, Table 4D or E in each case; for Scotland Table A6.

The annual point is important: as my additional column shows, at these levels of actual borrowing, average debt for Scottish students would be expected to be higher after four years than it would for Welsh or Northern Irish students after three. Northern Ireland has the same interest rate as Scotland.  Wales (and England) use a higher one – but a partial debt cancellation scheme for Welsh students worth a flat £1,500 has the effect of removing any difference due to interest.  These are therefore reasonable like-for-like comparisons.

For this sort of borrowing, Northern Irish students won’t get as much maintenance support as Scots, but Welsh students at low to middle incomes will get more (often quite a bit more: see Figure 2 here Evidence to Ed Cttee October 2015).

Scotland still has the edge on the proportion of students emerging debt free, with around 30% of students taking out no loan, compared to  more like 10% in the rest of the UK.  However, as discussed in the evidence linked in the previous paragraph,  where these are low income Scottish students, they are only able to achieve this by managing on very low levels of grant.  In practice, the SAAS statistics suggest that 70% of Scots leaving with no debt are from higher income homes.

I’m surprised the English figure has only risen from £9,210 to £10,370. The SLC figures show that by 2014-15, 90% of students were on the post-2012 arrangements and faced with higher fees.  I’d therefore expected it to be approaching £12,000.  That it hasn’t risen more sharply  may perhaps be an effect of the various localised bursary and fee waiver schemes or it could be a sign of students choosing to avoid extra maintenance debt – certainly, it deserves more explanation.  The political rhetoric (not least in Scotland) is of typical debts of £44,000 plus at the end of a degree: these figures imply something more like £32-35,000,  with a bit of grossing up to take out the residual effect of pre-2012 students.  However, the abolition of grant will push the English number up again next year.

Debt by income

The Scottish figures are also produced by income and look like this

Average loan (borrowers only) 4 year projection
No income and receiving bursary (ie mainly mature students) 6,649 26,596
Up to £16,999 5,870 23,480
£17,000 to £23,999 5,720 22,880
£24,000 to £33,999 5,570 22,280
£34,000 and above 4,600 18,400
No income declared: receiving no bursary (ie mainly incomes over £34,000) 4,560 18,240

We don’t have the other UK home nations by income for 2014-15, but I do have that information for 2012-13 from the SLC. It’s discussed here. The underlying structure of each scheme hasn’t changed since then: in brief, we would still expect that in England debt at low incomes will be at or below average, while in Wales and NI it will be below average, in the opposite of the situation in Scotland shown above.

Therefore, it’s almost certain that in practice at some low incomes at least annual borrowing in Wales is lower than it is in Scotland  and it may sometimes be in NI too.  That’s even before different degree lengths are taken into account.

Conclusion

In short, levels of of actual borrowing in Scotland  are only lower than the other devolved nations if we look at averages  and ignore longer periods of study.

At lower incomes, it looks likely that  students from Wales (and maybe NI) will often in practice have less debt each year; while across the whole student population on average, debt will be higher in Scotland than Wales or NI for a typical honours degree.   Even the gap in practice between a mature Scot after 4 years (£26,500) and an English student after three (£32-35,000) doesn’t look quite as big as the rhetoric might lead you to expect.

Scotland does still have the largest proportion of non-borrowers: they will be overwhelmingly from better-off backgrounds.

The Scottish Government’s addiction to outdated and misleading SLC final debt figures to compare the position of Scotland with the rest of  the UK really needs to end: the figures here provide a much more realistic set of comparisons for people interested in what’s really happening.

 

 

Except for viewers in Scotland – or not? The TEF north of the border

“… and then there’s the TEF,” said a friend working at a Scottish university to me this week, looking ahead to the pressures they anticipated in the future.

But is there?

Comment pieces, official statements and debates on the TEF – what it might mean, how it might work – are all over the specialist media and blogs based in England.  There’s lots of disagreement about both those points, but a general agreement that it will matter, and will change things in some important way.

Of course, this has nothing to do with Scotland.  The TEF is about teaching funding and tuition fee setting and therefore (unlike the REF) functions in a wholly devolved policy area.  Move along, etc.

Except that in another Scottish university, the word is that the senior management line is that the TEF is coming.  There’s a good reason for that – any institution that regards itself as competing for students over an area wider than Scotland, and is interested in where it sits in UK league tables, will be worried about an inability to be compared on similar terms.  Some people might want to argue about whether that should be the case – but it would be naive to ignore the pressure this exerts.

So here’s the interesting thing.  I cannot find a statement on the Green Paper in general or the TEF specifically, even just a nod towards the fact it has been announced, from the Scottish Government, Universities Scotland or any individual institution: not even from UCU in Scotland.  There  may be some sort of debate happening here, but if so it well out of sight of most of us.

Only NUS has said anything (it is against the Green Paper), including:

To be perfectly honest, it’s disappointing that Scottish universities haven’t so far come out more strongly in defence of the distinct and strong approach to quality we have in Scotland, and they—in fairness—have done much to secure, in partnerships with sector bodies and students. And those same sector bodies, held in high esteem by all in our sector, now stand at very real risk from the potential scrapping of their English counterparts.

Our universities shouldn’t hide behind weak excuses of international comparison or—far worse—marketing. It would be far more damaging if Scottish universities went along with an inappropriate framework simply as a means to see ever increasing fees for RUK or international students.

Instead, we hope that the Scottish Government, Scottish universities, and the wider sector, will join us in rejecting the premise of the Green Paper and what it stands for. Now’s the time we all need to stand up for the distinct approach we’ve taken, and the even more distinctive approach that lies ahead of us, as a result of these damaging reforms in England.

It’s certainly the case that the Scottish Government is not usually so slow in coming out to condemn English higher education policy.

Will the SG want to use the TEF in the same way as its southern counterpart? Unlikely:  it already allows Scottish universities to set whatever level of fee they want for rUK (and overseas) students  without having to jump through any particular hoops or facing any specific legal cap (see here).

Will they embrace the TEF for other reasons?  Maybe, but probably not.  Would they actively prevent Scottish universities from opting in? That’s not so clear.  Will Scottish universities be offered that choice  by those running the new TEF, and if not and they have to argue for it, will the SG back them?  Here it all gets more complicated.

You could hardly blame the government or the sector in Scotland for wanting to convene in private while they work all this out.  It wouldn’t be the first time a major policy in English HE with potential cross-border impact had arrived without much notice. NUS is almost certainly right to find the silence on the TEF in Scotland telling.

What’s remarkable, though, is that almost a month in, there’s no sign that anyone has asked Scottish Ministers, the Funding Council or Universities Scotland for a view – even if only to get a holding response that acknowledges there needs to be some thought about the Green Paper’s cross-border implications and some commitment to a degree of collective public process in working them through. We might at least have hoped for an expression of support for retaining an arms’ length funding body: at the moment, there’s no way of knowing whether or not Scottish Ministers are watching the demise of HEFCE with a thoughtful expression.

The risk is that while there’s a public debate south of the border which might affect the detail, if not the principle, of policy, in Scotland  any Green Paper-driven policy here will be quietly constructed by a few people behind closed doors and there will be no engagement cross-border on the detail of the TEF  – in contrast to the design of the REF and its predecessors, where the Scottish Funding Council and Scottish academics were influential players.

NUS Scotland are right to highlight the uncharacteristic silence north of the border on developments down south. If my friend is right, and the TEF is coming north to some or all institutions, then it would be better for that happen after a serious and open debate, rather than by an ad hoc process of rowing in behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

News just in: Scots believe rocks will melt by 2025

There was a lot of reporting last week of an IPSOS-MORI poll asking Scots what they believed might happen by 2025.  The link to the full results is available here.

The findings included that a clear majority – 59% – believed that by 2025 “Scots born in Scotland would be paying to go to university in Scotland”.

Who are these unbelievers?  I ask so that we can see who should be required to pay a penitential visit to the Heriot Watt campus.  Look, it’s there.  On an actual stone.  What more do they want?

It turns out that a failure to find masonry politically compelling is undifferentiated by sex (though women are a bit more sceptical), rural or urban location, whether people have children or work in public or private sector.  Owner-occupiers doubt more, but there’s a majority for disbelief among all forms of occupancy status.  Similarly, all age groups are off-message, though those age 25-34 are a bit more faithful than the rest.  Those not working are much less sceptical than retirees – but still sceptical overall.

By affluence there’s an obvious gradient: people are less likely to believe the policy will continue as affluence rises. However, even in the least affluent group, a majority – just – believe free tuition won’t continue.

The only sub-groups identified in the survey where there’s a majority view that tuition will still be free in 2025 are SNP and “other” supporters. As this table shows, even among these it’s a surprisingly close thing.  Supporters of other parties are very sceptical indeed.  Bear in mind that 71% of SNP supporters also believe that Scotland will be an independent country by that year and 81% that it will be a fairer society  – so there must be plenty who don’t see free tuition as guaranteed by independence  or necessary to a fairer society.

Tuition fees by 2025 are … Con Lab LD SNP Other
Likely 70 73 69 46 47
Unlikely 27 25 26 52 51
Net 43 48 43 -6 -4

What conclusion might be drawn? Evidently this doesn’t tell us whether respondents believe the loss of free tuition would be a good or bad thing. It does though suggest that Alex Salmond’s rock-melting rhetoric is taken with a large pinch of salt by the Scottish electorate, including quite a lot of SNP supporters, for whatever reason.

In its rhetoric, the Scottish government attaches a quasi-mystical degree of importance to free tuition and two of the three opposition parties also regard it as untouchable. That turns out to be pretty detached from what most Scots think is realistic.   That wouldn’t matter so much if free tuition wasn’t used by government as a cudgel against raising other difficult issues – especially the erosion of grant and the skewing of debt towards the poorest – which are adversely affecting people right now.  The government hyperbole around free tuition is used systematically as a tactical device for deflecting attention from uncomfortable things and keeping the opposition on the back foot.

Meanwhile, most of the Scottish public, including many government supporters, appear able to see fine well that universal free tuition is vulnerable in a grown-up debate about how we make fair political choices in a resource-constrained world.  Either that, or they are predicting a geological apocalypse.  In the land of James Hutton, the first option seems more likely.