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New stats underline how HE in FE masks inequality in university entry

The recent interim report of the Commission on Widening Access  noted that

Scotland, traditionally, has a high rate of participation in higher education relative to other UK nations. In 2013/14, the Scottish HE Initial Participation Rate for those aged between 16 and 30 was 55%, compared to the English rate of 47%. However, the rate is lower for those from the most deprived areas in Scotland, albeit progress has been made. In 2013/14 the participation rate for those from the most deprived areas in Scotland was 42% – up from 35% in 2006/07. There is no equivalent rate published for English participation.

Ironically, the 42% is no longer a published figure in Scotland, either.

It used to be. Until last year, the Scottish Funding Council provided the HE Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) broken down by background: see Table G here, which runs the figures up to 2012-13.  However, as of 2013-14 a breakdown at this level ceased to be made public.

However, the figure for that year must have been calculated privately for either the Scottish Government or the Commission and shared between them (it was quoted a couple of times by Ministers in the fortnight before the Commission’s report was published), as the Scottish Funding Council has confirmed that the 42% (technically, 41.7%) is indeed the most recent HEIPR figure for the most deprived 20%.

The shorter 2013-14 report also reassures that breakdowns of the data are still available on request from the SFC, which has helpfully responded to such a request by providing the figure for that year for the most and least deprived 20%, and then broken those down further between entrants to HEIs and HE courses in FE colleges.  This matters, as the Commission’s remit relates specifically to relative access to university.

The result is in the table below.  NB the “least deprived” category referred to in the old Table G now turns out to have been referring to the remaining 80% of students, rather than the least deprived 20%, a point not immediately obvious from the original publication.  This  explains why the gap shown below between the least and most the least deprived is rather  higher than  that shown in earlier publications.

Table E: HEIPR by institution type and deprivation quintile: 2013-14
Number of Entrants* HEIPR Scottish Higher Education Institutions (%) Scottish Further Education Colleges (%) Higher Education Institutions in the rest of the UK (%)
MD20          5,891 41.7% 15.9% 25.4% 0.4%
LD20          9,122 67.5% 47.1% 16.6% 3.8%
Overall        35,955 55.0% 32.4% 20.9% 1.7%
Sources: Scottish Funding Council, HESA, National Records for Scotland
*not all entrants could be matched to a deprivation quintile

The table shows that participation in higher education by the most deprived 20% is heavily dependent on entering HE at an FE college: that route is used by 61% of such students.  Some of these students will of course later transfer to an HEI, but we need to watch we don’t get too comfortable with that. First, most will not move on in that way. Second, there are advantages to going direct to university (such as direct access to subjects not available in FECs, without incurring the cost of extra years of study usually  associated with changing subject between HN and degree). We can also see that the least deprived make relatively little use of the college sector.  Until that changes, we should be very challenging of any argument that the real problem is that “we” just don’t value college-level HE as much as we should.  That’s almost certainly true –  but until the least deprived assess college-level HE as conferring an equal level of advantage as university on their children, Houston, there’s a problem with being too relaxed about it as the appropriate destination for everyone else.

So, that 16% of people make it direct to university from the most deprived backgrounds by the age of 30 is a tough number. Particularly when the figure is three times as high at the other end of the scale.

This breakdown by background and type of institution is not currently available for earlier years, so we cannot tell how it has changed over time.

However it is possible to tell that all  the growth in HEIPR in general since 2006-07 has been in FE colleges.  Again, that detailed breakdown ceased to be published this year. But again it is still available from the SFC.  The relevant tables are here (and also for the YPR, a similar measure looking only at 16 to 19 year olds): HEIPR and YPR from SFC November 2015.  The tables here also provide for the breakdown in participation rates by level of qualification (eg degree/HN), also now lost from automatic publication.

The total HEIPR in 2006-07 was 53.2%.  In 2013-14 it had risen to 55.0%.  Within that, however, the participation rate for HEIs in Scotland had fallen from 32.9% to 32.4%; in HEIs in the rest of the UK, it had fallen from 2.0% to 1.7%; while in FECs it had risen from 18.3% to 20.9%.  So it is at least possible that the growth the Commission identifies in the HEIPR since 2006-07 for the most deprived has been largely in entrants to FECs rather than universities.  The YPR, incidentally, has also seen greater growth in FE colleges, but alongside a smaller increase in HEIs – so something complicated is going on here concerning different patterns of change in participation straight from school and in participation by the age of 30,  which would repay further attention.

There is the problem with taking an unpublished sub-set of a number like the HEIPR and not explaining what it covers (for example, the discussion in subsequent paragraphs the Commission’s report slips straight from discussion of the HEIPR into university-level data). The story it tells may not be quite what many readers will assume – and others cannot immediately check.  Happily, though, the data is there if you ask.











Putting the Education Committee to the test on student support

Tomorrow the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee will hold a one-off session looking at student funding in Scotland.

This will be a real test of how far the Committee is capable of subjecting government policy to an evidenced-based critical eye.

The witnesses are mostly weel-kent faces at the Committee’s table, organisationally and/or individually.  With the possible exception of Who Cares? Scotland, it has not used this as a chance to bring in perspectives from beyond the established policy circuit on higher education and student funding. The witnesses are:

  • Angus Allan, Vice Principal, South Lanarkshire College, Colleges Scotland;
  • Robert Foster, Corporate Parenting Officer for Further Education and Higher Education, Who Cares? Scotland;
  • Vonnie Sandlan, President, National Union of Students Scotland;
  • Mary Senior, Scotland Official, University and College Union Scotland;
  • Alastair Sim, Director, Universities Scotland

The Committee has chosen not to call anyone from government.

Here are some questions.  The fewer of these are asked – or asked, but have the discussion on them prematurely closed down –  then the less interest the Committee will have shown in the situation of the tens, potentially hundreds, of thousands of Scottish students from low-income backgrounds who have been, are or will be at the sharp end of the decision to run down grant levels in Scotland. Fail to explore these points and any general concern expressed tomorrow about students from more disadvantaged backgrounds risks fair criticism as crocodile tears.

The questions are  these (or versions of them):

  • is it right that within Scotland  students from poorer backgrounds have the highest average borrowing and now typically face a government debt after four years approaching £25,000, while those from better-off homes will finish with less, often no, such debt?
  • should we be worried that 25% of young students who are eligible for Young Student Bursary are not topping up at all with loan? What are the implications of a student from a family with an income below £34,000 trying to survive in full-time higher education on nothing more than a grant of between £500 and £1,875 a year?
  • should we be concerned that the total number of students claiming a means-tested grant has been in decline since the 2013 changes were made, so that  it is now more than 10% lower than in 2010-11?

See most recent SAAS stats: Table A8

  • should the Committee be concerned that the quality of the  evidence provided to it by the government at various points has made harder its scrutiny of the treatment of low-income students?

The background to most of these points is contained in my evidence to the Committee, which was the only material submitted to it which analysed in depth the impact of the 2013 changes to student support in Scotland.  However, briefer reference to grant cuts, high borrowing at low incomes and/or, in a couple cases, unequal debt distribution were also included in the submissions from Universities Scotland, Colleges Scotland, the student unions from Edinburgh and Stirling Universities and Who Cares? Scotland (the first time these issues have been picked up in public outside the media and party politics, I think).

The third point has only become clear since statistics were published after the closing date for submissions. But it matters.  How have we lost 5,000 low-income students from the system when overall student numbers are rising?

The Committee session starts at 10am tomorrow (Tuesday 24 November) and should be available via the parliament’s TV channel.

Anyone watching the Committee for the first time may find it useful to know that the Convenor (Stewart Maxwell) is a member of the government party and that George Adam MSP is the Cabinet Secretary for Education’s Parliamentary Liaison Officer (“Parliamentary Liaison Officers (PLO) (formerly Ministerial Parliamentary Aides)  are MSPs appointed by the First Minister on the recommendation of Ministers whom they assist in discharging their duties”: from here).  PLOs are unpaid posts, often regarded as the testing ground for would-be ministers.  The Committee has nine members: five from the government party, two Labour, one Liberal Democrat and one Conservative.

If the technology allows, I’ll be live tweeting @LucyHunterB for as much it as I can.









“A gulf is opening within our own generation”: a reminder of why debt distribution matters

Sometimes I wonder if I’m right to be so worried about the way the annual £0.5bn taken out in student debt in Scotland is carried disproportionately by those who started from poorer backgrounds.

I can show it happens (see here). I have an argument why it matters (the reinforcement of inequality down the generations). Some other people have picked it up (most recently, Universities Scotland was one of a number of those who mentioned it in evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee and BBC Scotland Kaye Adams Programme gave it a good airing late last month). And it’s gaining ground as an argument in England, in response to the plan to abolish student grants there (see here, for example).

But in Scotland the Scottish Government has yet to acknowledge the fact this happens. NUS Scotland has not taken it up as a particular problem (its recent Committee evidence at best alludes to it indirectly).  I provided evidence on it to the Commission on Widening Access, but it does not feature as an issue in the Commission’s interim report published this week, which concentrates on getting in and staying in but not on who carries the costs.  On a quick skim through (I’ve only had time to do a word search on debt and loan), debt distribution does not even make into the summary of the evidence submitted, provided in a separate document. It remains to be seen whether the Education and Culture Committee will use its one-off inquiry into student support to consider this: it is not an issue the Committee has so far been keen to explore.

I am always aware that  though I don’t come from Chipping Norton set levels of wealth (far from), neither am I from a low income family.  Who am I to make such a fuss about this if the people affected,  those who officially speak for them, the relevant professionals appointed to the Access Commission from across the system or most of those representing them in parliament, are not raising it?

Then along comes Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett.  In a piece today, she interviews young people mainly in their 20’s about the struggle they face moving on into adult life, in particular starting a family: see Babies? An impossible dream.  What starts as a piece framed in terms of generational differences – between “millennials” or “Generation Rent” and “baby boomers” – becomes quite quickly a piece about class and wealth.

She observes:

… by far the most commonly cited reason [for young women not discussing their desire to have a child]  is that they didn’t want to hurt their parents’ feelings by discussing how, in contrast to the parents of some of their peers, they are unable to give them that vital leg up. Everyone I spoke to wanted to stand on their own two feet, but they were aware that their parents shared their feelings of powerlessness and sadness. “It would kill my father to have this printed,” one woman said. “He’s a proud man.”


Many of them feel great sadness about this, not only because they look to their parents’ generation and see opportunities they’ve never had, but because a gulf is opening within our own generation – between those who can start a family or whose parents can help them get on the property ladder, and those who can’t. “The number of people who have said I should ask my dad for a deposit,” Andrea says. “As if his life doesn’t matter any more… My dad might live for another 20 years – I hope he does – and his care will cost. He needs his money.”


The more people I spoke to, the more apparent it became that this is not just about generational divides, but about class. Interviewees were forever mentioning friends or acquaintances who had been privileged enough to buy, while those from low-income backgrounds lost out.

One respondent from a self-defined working class background who did not go to university does suggest that her peers’ expectations are too high.  But she also acknowledges that “I have had some financial help from my parents when I’ve been desperate – I’m talking a couple of hundred quid a month” and that “[she] has never wanted children and, as an only child, knows that she will inherit her parents’ house when they die”.  So her position is less financially problematic than some others – “working class” can still cover a fair range of economic circumstances.

Cosslett’s piece rightly identifies wider trends in the housing and labour markets as the critical factors limiting the choices people of her generation feel able to make about starting a family.  But to ladle on top of this an unequal share of the student loan book does more than add insult to injury.  It means that the people least able to call on family help with mortgage deposits and other things as they reach their 20’s and 30’s are also the ones who are most likely to be opening their pay slips to see £50 [income =£25,000] or £100 [income = £31,000] a month returned to the state as the price of their participation in HE, and to go on having that happen to them for longest.

It’s a truly unfair situation and the inability of the great and the good of Scotland to face up to it should be a source of, at least, national discomfort if not shame.  So, thank-you, Rhiannon.  I’ll not go away yet.


My evidence to the Commission on Widening Access is here: Access Commission form July 2015  and Annex to Access Commission evidence

and to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee is here.

Both clearly draw attention to the regressive pattern of debt distribution in Scotland.




Why an increase in the attainment gap really does matter

There’s been some debate about the significance of the figures on Highers results reported yesterday.  The Conservatives released figures for the number of young people from the 20% most and least deprived households achieving at least 3 As at Highers, which they identified as showing the “attainment gap” for that measure widening by just over 3 percentage points.

The full figures appear only to be available on demand, which is not so helpful.  However, from what’s been released,  the position for the percentage of  all young people from the 20% most and least deprived households gaining at least 3 As appears to be this:

Most disadvantaged Least disadvantaged
2011 2.5 17.4
2014 2.99 21.13
Change: % pts 0.49 3.73
Change: % 19.6 21.4

Looking at some of the comment thread discussion on this, there’s an argument being put quite strongly by some that to talk of an increasing gap is badly misleading,  because the  rate of improvement for each group individually is similar, at around either side of 20% (though it is still a little lower in the most disadvantaged group). It’s argued that this is more significant than the widening gap in percentage point difference between the two groups and that a story of general improvement is being negatively spun.

The problem with simply comparing the growth rate for each group is that it leaves out their very unequal starting points.  It’s rather like saying that if I was splitting £10 between 2 people,  one with an income of £10,000 and one with an income £90,000, there’d be no widening of their “wealth gap” if I were to give the first person  £1 and the second £9, because they would both get 1/10,000 of their income. Intuitively, we know unequal starting points matter.

In the case of yesterday’s figures, a 0.49 percentage point increase in the least advantaged group compared to a 3.73 percentage point increase among the most advantaged means that for every extra young person from a disadvantaged background getting at least 3 As there are now around 8 more from the most advantaged, compared to 2011.

We know that school attainment plays a major part in determining who goes into HE and within that, into which institutions and courses.  So translate that 1:8 into competition for a capped number of places in higher education and, to anyone who cares about access to HE, it becomes very clear why a widening of the gap definitely matters – notwithstanding that there has been some improvement across the board.


Because the raw figures haven’t been shared, I can’t calculate a precise ratio.  The 1:8 is a rough mid-point between (a) the result if there were the same number of young people in each group, which would give 1:7.6 [3.73/0.49] and (b)  if the proportion of young people in each group is still the same as in 2011, the data for which was published in full for a similar study by The Guardian in 2012, which gives 1:8.7.  In 2011, there were slightly more young people in the top 20% of households.

To illustrate that, this table applies the percentages in the first table above (2.5% etc) to the 2011 population figures.

Most disadv Least disadv
Total 9026 10262
3As+ 2011 226 1786
3As+ 2014 270 2168
Change 44 383

Is the gap on access to university closing faster in Scotland than the rest of the UK?

[Spoiler: not so as to be worth trying to hang an argument on, if at all.]

In an interview yesterday on The Sunday Politics, referring to university entry rates between the most and least deprived, the Cabinet Secretary Angela Constance MSP  said twice that “we are closing the gap at a faster rate than our English counterparts” (linked here). The First Minister tweeted a similar sentiment from a piece in the TES last week (more on that below).  In its search for a killer fact on access which can successfully see off questions about why it is allowing student debt to pile up disproportionately at the lowest incomes, the Scottish Government evidently feels it has found something.

Entry rates

The SG appears to be looking at the UCAS data on entry rates by background (for 18 year olds).  The most recent set of these figures runs from 2006 to 2014 and is found in tables 71 and 72 here. I’ve not tried to summarise the position year-by-year (it would make for a very unfriendly-looking table and I have yet to work out how to insert graphs here).  But taking the first and last year, here’s how it looks since 2006 (ratios and percentages derived by me from the figures) – Q1 are the 20% most deprived, Q5 the 20% least.  0.0638 means that in 2006 6.38% of 18 year olds in the 20% most deprived group went into HE through UCAS.



Q5 Ratio Q5:Q1 England:


Q5 Ratio Q5:Q1
2006 0.0638 0.349 5.5 0.113 0.431 3.8
2014 0.0949 0.336 3.5 0.182 0.459 2.5
% change 49% -4% -35% 61% 6% -34%

Since 2006, the gap has narrowed by 35% in Scotland and 34% in England, so Scotland has a marginal edge.  The percentage increase was actually higher for the Q1 group in England over the period, but there has also been a small increase in Q5. By contrast, Scotland’s gap has closed marginally more, but not because it has increased entry rates faster for the most disadvantaged, but because – slightly surprisingly – over the period the entry rate has dropped a little for the top 20%.

Looking only at the most recent years, since student support changes in Scotland took effect in 2013, measured from 2012 England does better than Scotland, but that is substantially because 2012 was a dip year for entry there – so I won’t use that. The percentage change below is measured just for the last year available, from 2013 to 2014.

Over the past year the entry rate rose more quickly in Scotland for Q1, but – as before – there has also been a fall in Q5 in Scotland (-3% in one year), while in England, both groups rose. The gap did close more quickly, by 14 % in Scotland as against 8% in England, but the drop in Q5 in Scotland accounted for half the difference.  It’s not something on which to hang  too much political claiming: also, at this sort of level UCAS figures can be quite volatile between years.  The next report could see Scotland pulling further ahead (in which case we will hear a lot about it, as this statistic suddenly becomes the go to access fact).  Or it might not, in which we won’t hear so much.

Q1 Q5 Ratio Q5:Q1                   Q1                          Q5 Ratio Q5:Q1
2012 0.0822 0.346 4.2 0.151 0.438 2.9
2013 0.0836 0.345 4.1 0.164 0.45 2.7
2014 0.0949 0.336 3.5 0.182 0.459 2.5
% change 2013 to 2014 0.14 -0.03 -0.14 0.11 0.02 -0.08

The TES piece and FM tweet

This post discussed a recent TES report of an analysis of access to HE in Scotland.

TES reported that:

Mr Forth, founder of Leeds-based company Imactivate, finds that the chances of pupils from Scotland’s more deprived areas going to university have more than doubled in the past 10 years.

He concludes that “current criticism of [Scotland’s] higher education system is unfounded”.   …

Mr Forth highlights Ucas data showing that the proportion of 18-year-olds from Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas getting into university has risen to 15 per cent in 2014 from 7.2 per cent in 2004. But that still leaves Scotland behind Northern Ireland (25.7 per cent), England (20.7 per cent) and Wales (18.2 per cent).

“Scotland’s inequality of access does seem to be the highest of any UK nation, but over the past decade it has come down the most,” writes Mr Forth. “This looks like success, not failure, to me.””

This quote picked out by the FM in a much-favourited and retweeted tweet of the article:

“Over the past decade, it [Scotland’s inequality of access to uni] has come down the most. This looks like success”

But there’s a problem with this analysis and its reporting. The original analysis (a) was not looking at entry rates and (b) was boosted by a substantial  improvement in the figures which pre-dates the current Scottish government.

As ever, Forth makes his data source very clear and easy to identify – see here.  They are clearly for the social background gap in application rates, not for actual entry.  That has value as a measure of demand, but not actual access.  Indeed, acceptances rates for Scottish students have fallen in recent years – a higher proportion of Scottish applicants end up unplaced than in the UK as a whole.

Moreover, what gives Scotland a strong story to tell about applications over the period covered is a particularly large  in 2005 tightening of the ratio in 2005 –  this is made absolutely clear from the graph. That matters, because the issue under discussion is the impact of HE policy under the current government, which  only entered office in 2007, promising free tuition.

Just taking the numbers from 2006, in that year those in the top 20% in Scotland were 4.4 times more likely to apply through UCAS than those in the bottom 20%: by 2014 that had fallen to 2.9 times. In England the equivalent change was from 4.0 to 2.5.  So over the relevant period, both fell by 1.5, which for England was a slightly larger percentage, though not by much. The two countries are pretty much the same.

As with the material discussed in my earlier post, it is surprising that TES did not spot the type of data being used (the table is clearly headed) and the timing point,  and thus notice that the quote was over-stated in the context of a specific examination of the possible effects of free tuition on actual access.   It wasn’t perhaps the  task of TES then to go and look at the actual entry data.  But it should have been clear about what the figures it was reporting.

I have worked with this data in the past and I cover it on this site because claims about access are used so routinely to parry any criticism of the way poorer students in Scotland have been adversely affected by grant cuts. I am not however a particular expert on access data (and Tom Forth admits the same for himself). There are though people in Scotland who have spent years trying to make sense of the complex and sometimes contradictory mass of UCAS, HESA and SFC figures from across the UK: I very much hope that when journalists find interesting pieces from people who are self-professed newcomers to the statistical minefield which is  inter-country comparisons on access, they think about getting in touch with one of the people who know these numbers painfully well. Although I think Forth over-claimed for current policy from his UCAS data, those figures were not the presented  in his piece as its main focus, but to explain why he had found them an inadequate source to answer his questions properly.  They were presented by way of a quick introduction to his own detailed  analysis of participation rates as against child poverty.


Properly understood, the claim of the access gap narrowing fastest in Scotland between the least and most deprived can’t at present bear much political weight.  Yet the general idea that Scotland is closing the gap fasteer than other parts of the UK (especially England) will now be lodging  as a fact.   We will almost certainly hear it again and it will be hard, if not impossible, to persuade people who want to believe it, that it is not true or at least not very meaningfully so. That’s how these things work.

This post is a small attempt to prevent this new claim establishing itself as another reason to avoid discussing the impact of the Scottish Government’s decision to reduce grants and skew student debt towards the poorest.  On that we have some very unambiguous numbers.  All we need now is for Ministers to start talking about those.

The TES story: an update

Yesterday, I wrote a piece which was critical of  the way TES  had reported on a particular piece of research.  Contrasting its approach with that of another paper, I said (emphasis added):

TES readers were not so well-served.  The risk is that its piece will be gratefully grasped as a welcome counter-narrative to more challenging (and important) claims about the university access in Scotland and lead to more substantial and uncomfortable pieces of work being dismissed out of hand.  As The Scotsman’s decision to include [the author] as the sole expert voice in its piece shows, the appetite for less gloomy alternative perspectives on the access debate means that his own careful expressions of limited expertise will get easily lost.  That’s especially likely if his work gets picked up on social media, with its tendency to confirmation bias (his original piece has been re-tweeted over 200 times).   But the TES  is in a different game from Twitter et al and ought to publish some sort of correction or clarification  underneath its piece.

A few hours later, the TES piece was tweeted twice by the First Minister, who picked out as quotes:

“Scotland is doing a comparatively good job of sending poorer students to university, according to new analysis” and also

“Over the past decade, it [Scotland’s inequality of access to uni] has come down the most. This looks like success”

[Note: This was a fair reading of the TES piece – but the analysis reported on actually shows neither of these.  My earlier post looked at the first claim, I’ll do another on the second.]

They have both been retweeted and favourited  at least a  hundred times.  Some of the re-tweets will surely have been re-tweeted again.

A message not justified by the data now sticks a bit more, not least among the people we most need to look at the situation on student funding with a cold, hard eye (and therefore to do the same also with access, cat and mouse statistical claims about which are often used to deflect attention from some cold, hard numbers on the unequal distribution of student debt in Scotland).  It will be that bit harder for less comfortable and important messages about the current state of play in Scotland to get a hearing. Who gains from repeatedly finding ways to sweep aside  the debate about who ends up with the most debt in Scotland? Those who are already relatively privileged. Who loses? Those with the most to lose already.

Once again, I don’t think this was the TES’s finest hour.

Verdict on recent TES reporting on university access in Scotland: could try harder

The TES recently published this piece.  The opening paragraphs give a sense of its content (emphasis added):

Scotland is doing a comparatively good job of sending poorer students to university, according to new analysis.

Within the UK only Northern Ireland, London and the West Midlands perform better at minimising the impact that poverty has on a pupil’s chance of accessing higher education, according to data analyst Tom Forth.

He broke the UK up into 11 geographical areas and used data from Ucas (Universities and Colleges Admission Service), the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the End Child Poverty campaign group to rank each on the strength of the link between wealth and a university education.

Tom Forth’s original piece is here. Forth has done the good thing of looking behind the headlines on a topic he’s interested in, finding data and trying to work out the answer for himself (all unpaid, in his own time): how he approached his analysis is discussed in more detail in the footnote below.  To his credit, he publishes all the data his analysis is based on.   He also recognises and admits his limitations, saying:

Lastly, I’m not an expert in the UK’s higher education systems. There’s so much more I’d like to understand but I don’t have the time or the money to do so yet. I’m especially interested by what affect different classifications of higher education vs.  further education between UK nations may have on these results.

He’s right to identify the classification of HE as being important.  Although his piece talks throughout about “university access”, and that’s how he titles his graphs, a look at his data shows he is using the Young Participation Rate, which covers participation in all forms of HE by age 20, including sub-degree HE in FE colleges.  This can checked by comparing his all-Scotland average and with the all-HE YPR for the relevant cohort (the answer is 40% in both cases: Table K here).

That matters in Scotland, of course.  Broken down by sector, the YPR for 2009 (the year Forth looks at)  shows that 26.9% of participation was in HEIs in Scotland, 12.4% in FECs in Scotland and 1.6% in rUK institutions (type unspecified). So 32% of the participation Forth examined where thetype of institution is known was not at university-level and the unknown cases are de minimis.

Other data shows that in Scotland degree level HE is concentrated in HEIs: FECs provide relatively little degree-level HE: table A here.  The complicating factor is that a minority of HN students will progress later to a degree at an HEI (I think as many as one-sixth of HN leavers may “articulate”  to a degree with full credit for the years they have already done, while a similar number may start again in first year – a costly model for those individuals: but I’m not so confident with this data, so don’t quote me).  How to count the Scottish college-to-university group in cross-UK comparisons is an additional headache.

So while the UK comparative analysis is valid if the issue at stake is participation in HE as a whole, it isn’t if it’s access to university, arguments about which in Scotland were the stimulus for the piece

Indeed, given the YPR breakdown, and what can be deduced about the much more limited role of non-university and sub-degree HE in England from HEFCE figures,  if we could run a similar analysis comparing participation and child poverty just for universities or just for degree-level HE, it looks quite likely that the headline findings would be far less in Scotland’s favour.

None of this is intended as any criticism of Forth: he’s been entirely open about the limitations of his own knowledge and understanding, and shared his analysis in a way which makes it possible to check – and remember he has done this as an amateur, in the pure sense.

Less understandable, however,  is why the TES  has not shared Forth’s own caveats with its readers or done what it took me a few minutes to do, in the light of those caveats, and check what data he was using and whether it did indeed relate to university access, as he suggested.

I’m all for independent thinkers who look at the underlying data for themselves in their own  unpaid time and share their results, and inputs, for debate (how could I not be?).  But I’m less impressed by one of the UK’s main education journals deciding to publish a report on a controversial topic based on such a piece work by a self-professed non-expert,  without first doing the sort of straightforward checks on its claims which the author of the original piece himself flagged up might be needed, and are easy to do.   It could still have run the piece (it’s an interesting combination of HE and poverty data), but explained that it only worked insofar as a comparison of all forms of HE was the topic.

Indeed, Forth was quoted in The Scotsman the week before in a piece on access (see here).  There, however, to the credit of both parties, the issue under discussion is clearly participation in higher education and Forth makes it clear that it’s adding the non-UCAS (ie non-university) HE which makes the difference.  When that’s done, Forth comments: “Loud voices in London think Scotland’s higher education system is failing its poor. Loud voices in Edinburgh insist that everything’s great. From Leeds, the exact midpoint of the two cities, my look at the data seems to show something in between.”  If all we are interested in is access to any form of HE, that’s a pretty fair comment: if anything, it may undersell Scotland’s performance on HE once HN-level study in colleges is included. The underlying question then is how to weigh HN-level HE in the overall balance.

TES readers were not so well-served.  The risk is that its piece will be gratefully grasped as a welcome counter-narrative to more challenging (and important) claims about the university access in Scotland and lead to more substantial and uncomfortable pieces of work being dismissed out of hand.  As The Scotsman’s decision to include him as the sole expert voice in its piece shows, the appetite for less gloomy alternative perspectives on the access debate means that his own careful expressions of limited expertise will get easily lost.  That’s especially likely if his work gets picked up on social media, with its tendency to confirmation bias (his original piece has been re-tweeted over 200 times).   But the TES  is in a different game from Twitter et al and ought to publish some sort of correction or clarification  underneath its piece.

Meantime, I hope Forth carries on doing what he does (and if he is up for trying to repeat the analysis by level of HE, when he has the chance and if the data permits, that would be a really interesting read).


Finding it difficult to use UCAS data to make satisfactory comparisons, Forth turned to comparing the YPR to child poverty rates by area.  He amassed the data on this at parliamentary constituency level and then reaggregated it into the three devolved nations, plus England divided into 9 regions (making 12 units: the TES wrongly says 11- a minor point, but further suggesting limited engagement with the detail of the piece). Forth’s is a really interesting approach with potential to add to the debate and I’m not sure if it’s been tried by anyone else.

He has the data for both measures in enough detail to produce weighted averages, which I am therefore assuming he has used for reaggregating the figures to regional level.  So his regional-level comparisons ought to be meaningful (as ever, for all HE, but not university-level alone).  He doesn’t provide an all-England comparison, which is a pity, as that’s the level at which policy is determined there: on a very rough estimate, it looks as though England would lie about half-way between Scotland and Wales.  However, his regional breakdown of England is useful, as it shows how much variation there is underneath the English average.  In particular, London – the focus of so much attention and investment in its schools since the turn of the century, via the London Challenge – comes out particularly well, adding further weight to the argument that it’s school-level intervention which makes the biggest difference to widening participation. Meanwhile, the south east of England lies at the bottom of the table. I’m pretty sure that the south east would show the highest persistence of grammar/selective schooling in England, plus use of the private sector (certainly outside the area covered by the London Challenge).  I therefore suspect that Forth’s analysis, though prompted by an interest in UK comparisons and fee policy, in its current form really comes into its own in adding to the debate about the role of the school system, especially within England, and deserves further attention in that context.




“Why” is always a good question

After a few days over which student grant and debt in Scotland have received a lot of critical attention,  an email has been sent to this site which says simply “Why?”

There’s no more explanation than that.  But “why” is always a good question and lies behind much of the work on this site.

I’m guessing the writer may not be sympathetic to criticism of the Scottish Government position on student funding (apologies if I have got that wrong).  In that case, the why seems likely to be why do you do this?  There’s a long answer to that here.

But there’s a shorter answer in the tables below, which show how Scotland’s steeply rising student loan borrowing (a) is designed to be higher for and (b) falls disproportionately to those from the lowest incomes, who will in future be expected to pay back more of their earnings to the state – a regressive graduate tax in all but name.  That continues to be worth highlighting.

(a)  Entitlements from SAAS

Grant (Young) Loan (Young) Grant (Mature) Loan


Up to £16,999 1,875 5,750 875 6750
£17,000 to £23,999 1,125 5,750 0 6750
£24,000 to £33,999 500 5,750 0 6250
£34,000 and above 0 4,750 0 4750

(b) Actual borrowing shares 2014-15: derived from Table A6 here

 % share
Number of SG-supported students: Scot doms only Borrowing Share of borrowing
Up to £16,999 29.4 39.0 33% higher than population share
£17,000 to 33,999 14.6 17.6 21% higher than population share
£34,000 and above 56.0 43.3 23% lower than population share

Note: Up to £16,999 includes those with no income declared on a full or partial bursary; £34,000 and above includes those with no income declared receiving no bursary, assumed income is over the qualifying threshold (£33,999). 14,400 EU students have been removed from the no income/no bursary category for total student numbers, to reflect that they are not able to borrow.

There are other dimensions to the Scottish system which need scrutiny: the existence of  a large minority of low-income students limiting their state support to the grant element only, so that they are trying to get by on annual living cost support of less than £2,000, sometimes no more than £500; and, the net transfer of resources from less well off to better off students over the past decade, through the student funding system.

Why? It’s a very good question.

FMQs on grants and loans October 2015: the annotated version

The question of student grants and debt was covered at length at FMQs today: official report here.

Below is an annotated transcript of the exchanges, with comments on the various claims made.   In brief, the FM held to the  now well-established and presumably very conscious SG decision not to acknowledge the fact of grant reductions in 2013-14.

The government lines that were used rested heavily on a number of claims that are open to challenge, as explained in my comments below, with the FM providing an exceptionally clear example of classic political number play.  In particular, the repeated use of final debt figures for 2014 leavers to represent the debt facing Scottish students is very open to misunderstanding. It would be interesting know how far Ministers are aware of what this figure actually represents.

What’s below is a long read, but worth providing in full to bring out the extent to which almost all the factual claims made in defence of the current student funding arrangements by the FM are vulnerable to some sort of criticism.  I have also commented on a couple of opposition points.

Post script: What’s not mentioned can be revealing too. The FM made no reference to the idea of the “minimum income guarantee”, usually a central element of the government script.   As detailed elsewhere, one-third of the young students targeted by the MIG policy have not achieved it, because they have not taken up the high level of borrowing required, while actual numbers getting MIG are half what the SG originally predicted.  Whether awareness of that explains the absence of any reference to the MIG in such a long series of exchanges is unknowable, but it’s possible.


Kezia Dugdale:

I thank the First Minister for that very welcome and full reply.

I turn to student finance. Figures that have been published this week by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland show that, under the Scottish National Party Government, the average student bursary or grant has been cut by almost 30 per cent, and that it is the poorest students who are suffering. Students from deprived backgrounds are being forced to take on an even greater debt burden. Students who have the potential to get on in life and to do great things are being held back because their parents do not have a lot of money. The gap between the richest and the rest has grown on the Scottish National Party’s watch.

Comment: Rising student debt has affected higher income as well as poorer students, so that the gap between those who actually borrow at incomes over £34,000 and borrowers at lower incomes has narrowed. However, the figures also strongly suggest that students from the highest income households are far more likely to borrow nothing, compared to students from low and middle income households.    So it is reasonable to assume that the “the richest” have been largely unaffected by recent changes and the debt gap between them and the majority of the less well-off has grown.  However, no figures are available which can demonstrate that specific point directly.

I know that the First Minister will talk about tuition fees in answer to my next question—it is her standard response whenever we talk about student debt and grants—but I would like her to answer this question very specifically. Can she tell us the total value of student debt in Scotland?

The First Minister:

I am not going to talk about tuition fees; I am going to talk about student support, because that is what Kezia Dugdale has asked me about, and it is an important question.

Our students have

“the best support package in the whole of the UK”.

Those are not my words; they are the words of the National Union of Students Scotland.

Comment: The framing/attribution to NUS is very careful and likely to be deliberate.  These words were used by then NUS President Robin Parker on 22 August 2012 (echoing the headline in the SG news release of the same day: the comparison seems to have originated with the SG).  The line has however been absent from more recent NUS comments, such as its response to the current parliamentary inquiry into student support.  Also, when it is not directly quoting NUS, the SG now qualifies the “best in UK”  line with “for students who live at home” (as in the Cabinet Secretary’s interview here).  That’s important, because the claim was originally founded on Scotland offering the most upfront help with living costs: but as the graph at Figure 1 here shows, total living cost support for low and middle income students away from home is generally more generous in England or Wales (both of which also use more grant to achieve this).  There was around a month, from August to September 2012, when Scotland did have the highest announced maximum package of grant plus loan of any UK jurisdiction: however,  by September 2012 the Welsh Government had announced increases for students away from home which overtook the Scottish figures.

The number of students who are receiving support is higher than ever before,

Comment: Only once fees and loans are included.  The numbers receiving non-repayable grants have fallen. These are the numbers receiving any kind of bursary or grant in 2005-06/2010-11/2014-15:   58,750/68,960(after introduction of the independent student bursary)/52,315. Table A8 here. Within that, the number receiving a means-tested bursary are 37,930/55,490(ISB again)/49,295.  The numbers on means-tested support specifically aimed at young students were 35,965/34,140/32,310.  Aside from the introduction of ISB, it’s a clear story of declining numbers: and even ISB claimants fell last year.

and the average support that is being provided is higher than it has ever been.

Comment: Again, this is when increased loans are included.

When we look at the average student loan debt, we find that the figure for Scotland is significant lower than the figure for any other part of the United Kingdom. In England, the figure is £21,180, in Wales it is £19,010, in Northern Ireland it is £18,160 and in Scotland it is £9,440. That is the reality.

Comment: £9,440 was the reality for students who left HE in 2014, who spent only one year under the new funding system. That average includes HNC/D students who only studied for one or two years, who bring down the figure (by about one-quarter, I’ve estimated elsewhere).  It also ignores the variation round the average, which means that in  Scotland, alone in the UK, average borrowing is higher at lower incomes. Annual average borrowing is now £5,270 (A1 in the stats), making a final debt nearer £20,000 more plausible for current degree students.  That’s pretty similar to the position in the other devolved nations and once variation round the average is taken into account, the poorest students in Scotland are in fact likely to be borrowing more than those in Wales and NI.  England is a different story and indeed the figure here of £21,180 shows how out of date these numbers are. If comparison with debt in England is the benchmark, the SG could now take debt well over £30,000 and still claim criticism was unfounded.

Kezia Dugdale may or may not be aware that the Scottish Government has also taken the step of increasing the bursary element of the student support package in the current academic year.

Comment:  After reductions in support in 2013-14 close to £1000 in many cases, and as much as £1640 in some, followed by a freeze in 2014-15, the SG has raised  bursaries for those below £24,000 by £125.

In the next academic year, we will raise the income threshold for eligibility for the maximum bursary.

Comment:  In 2013-14, the threshold for maximum support was reduced from £19,300 to £16,999.  Next year the cut will be almost restored (in cash terms) to £18,999.

Those changes were described by NUS Scotland in the following terms: “great news for Scottish students … the Scottish Government is to be congratulated for doing more to tackle student poverty.”

Comment: There’s been a strong contrast in NUS’s  involvement with debates about grant north and south of the border. In England, it is threatening legal action over the decision to remove grants there. I have discussed some of the factors which may explain NUS Scotland’s position on the 2013 changes here.  NUS Scotland issued this statement after FMQs today, which has a markedly different tone from the 2012 press notice,  highlighting the need to increase grants, although, in a parallel with the SG, it glosses over that the first £40m of any investment in grants will be making up for cuts which NUS by implication enthusiastically welcomed, under its 2012 leadership.

That is what the Scottish Government is doing, and we will continue to take action to ensure that all those who want to go into further or higher education can do so regardless of their background or circumstances.

Kezia Dugdale:

There was a lot of gloss in that answer, but the reality is that support for the poorest students in Scotland is the worst in all the four nations of the United Kingdom. I asked the First Minister specifically about student debt. I think that, on this occasion, she knew the answer but was too ashamed to say it out loud. The value of student debt in Scotland stands at £2.7 billion—or, as Alex Salmond might put it, £2,700 million.

Comment:  That figure is the amount included in the accounts, after adjusting for what is likely to be collected.  The actual face value of unpaid student loan debt is £3.5bn.

The value of student debt in Scotland is more than the combined cost of the new Forth replacement crossing and the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow. In fact, the value of the accumulated debt of students in Scotland is now the Government’s single biggest financial asset.

The student debt monster that the SNP once promised to dump is now a debt mountain. Did the First Minister have any intention of keeping that promise?

The First Minister:

Kezia Dugdale cannot escape the fact that the average student loan debt is significantly lower in Scotland than it is anywhere else in the UK, or the fact that Scotland-domiciled students—here I will talk about tuition fees—do not have to pay the fees of up to £27,000 that are charged for tuition elsewhere in the UK.

Comment: The “up to” is important  here.  Northern Irish students in Northern Ireland and Welsh students going anywhere in the UK are limited to fee debt of just over £3,800 a year in each case.  The variety of UK fee regimes is generally not acknowledged by Scottish Ministers.

That is a real saving that does not become a debt in Scotland, as it does in other parts of the UK. Currently, if the least well-off students in England and Scotland took up the maximum amount of student loan that is available to them during the term of their degree, the English students would accumulate about £12,000 more in debt than the Scottish students. That is the reality.

Comment: This figure appears to take account of the additional local fee waivers and bursaries in England. It shows how at low incomes the gap with England is rather less than the £27,000 for fees, often quoted.  Thus, the group who benefit most from reduced debt compared to England are those at higher incomes. Equally interesting is the absence  of any attempt to extend the comparison to Wales or NI.  Both of those come out around £3,000 lower than Scotland on this sort of comparison.  The existence of alternative policy making in the other devolved nations remains problematic for the SG, whenever it wants to draw comparisons.

We have the best student support package in the UK, and the average student debt is less in Scotland than it is in any other part of the UK. We are also taking steps to increase the bursary element of the total student support package, which stands in sharp contrast to what the UK Government is currently doing. Not content with imposing tuition fees, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his budget speech that the UK Government is going to abolish bursaries altogether and move entirely to loan funding. That is something that the Scottish Government will not do.

Comment: It has taken the proposal to abolish grant in England for the Scottish Government to make its first positive public commitment since 2013 to preserving what remains of grants in Scotland.  The grants now being committed to are currently worth £1,875 up to £16,999, £1,125 to £23,999 and £500 up to £33,999 (for young students: they are £875 up to £16,999 only, for mature students).   The gap between some, arguably all, of these figures and zero is not very substantial.  Indeed, if the locally-run bursary system, however flawed, is retained at its current level, English spending on targeted non-repayable support for poorer students could still be worth half or more that in Scotland, pro rata, even after national grants are abolished. Nothing similar exists on the same scale in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale:

That is all from a First Minister who told students that their debt would be zero. We were told by the First Minister to judge her on her record. So here it is. The reality is that, today, it is easier to be poor and get to university in England, even under the Tories, than it is to do so in Scotland under the SNP. [Interruption.] I heard cries of “Shameful.” Yes, that is shameful.

The First Minister promised to abolish student debt; instead, it has increased. She promised to expand grants; instead, they have been cut. Is not it the case that, despite all the promises and all the moments of self-congratulation, the SNP Government is letting down Scotland’s poorest students

The First Minister:

As I think I said in both my previous answers, in this academic year we have increased the bursary element of the student support package. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick):


The First Minister:

It was that which led NUS Scotland to say that the Scottish Government should be

“congratulated for doing more to tackle student poverty.”

Since 2006, there has been a 50 per cent increase in applications to universities from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in our country. Young people are more likely to participate in higher education by the time they are 30 than was the case in 2006.

Comment: According to UCAS, there has been a 63% increase in applications from POLAR2 Q1 (its deprivation measure) in Scotland since 2006 (Annex A here).  The equivalent figure for England is 72%.  The HEIPR for Scotland has risen slightly since 2006 (from 53.2% Table E here to 55% Table M here).  However, the % participation rate has fallen slightly for Scottish HEIs (to 32.1%), while rising for HE in FE colleges (to 21.0%): Table E again – a further small percentage is accounted for by those going out of Scotland . These disaggregated figures only run to 2012-13 – the split by sector is no longer published.  In England, the HEIPR has risen from 42.2% to 46.6% over the same period.

On the specific issue of student debt, let me repeat some of the figures, because those are the figures that matter to people and students across Scotland. In Scotland, the average student loan debt is £9,440; in England, it is £21,180. In Wales, which was being governed by a Labour Administration the last time I looked, the average student loan debt is £19,010—almost double the figure in Scotland.

Comment: the extent to which the SG relies on the £9,440 figure is very problematic, in terms of providing a clear and accurate picture of the position under the system it introduced in 2013.  Looking at some of the reaction to the debate on-line, it’s clear that the relative debt position of Scottish students compared to other parts of the UK is a very persuasive point for some, so describing this accurately matters very much.

Everybody knows that we live in tough financial times, and tough choices always have to be made, but we will continue to ensure that we provide good support for our students so that more of our students from the most deprived parts of our country can take the opportunity to go to university. We will continue to get on with the job and we will, as usual, leave Labour to moan and whinge about it, regardless of what we do, from the sidelines.

Ruth Davidson:

We have just heard a series of quite serious exchanges regarding funding and access to universities, but I did not hear in any of those exchanges a credible alternative plan for how we will fund bursaries for poorer students and ensure the wider access that we all say that we want. So here is one. Under our plans, we would ask all graduates who have enjoyed their university education to pay back a contribution once they get a decent job. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer:


Ruth Davidson:

That money could then be used to help to increase bursaries for poorer students who, under the current scheme, cannot even get a foot through the door. That plan is sensible and moderate and would help those who are most in need. What reason, other than an ideological one, would the First Minister have for not considering that plan?

The First Minister:

I give credit to Ruth Davidson. She is putting forward her policy, which is to support the introduction of tuition fees, and she is absolutely entitled to put that before the Scottish people at the election in a few months’ time to allow them to cast their verdict on it. However, we have an honest disagreement. I believe in free education. I benefited from that as a young person and I believe that I have no right to take it away from any other young person today.

Comment: It is not clear whether the FM also received a grant.

We will have that debate in the months to come.

Students who graduate and benefit from a university education pay that back through taxation. I believe that that is what should happen—not that we should have tuition fees, a graduate tax or whatever terminology Ruth Davidson wants to use.

Comment: In effect, student loans operate like a form of graduate tax, bring repayable relative to income. It is not clear on what basis the FM draws a distinction  between such loans, now issued in Scotland at the rate of £0.5bn a year,  as a funding instrument for students and a graduate tax.  The main practical difference between the way loans are used in Scotland and a conventional graduate tax is that the Scottish system requires those who started from a poorer background to pay back a larger share of their future income as a result of going to university than those who came from better off homes, whose incomes will be less affected, if at all.

We will continue to take the steps that I outlined in detail to Kezia Dugdale to support students from the poorest backgrounds to go to university.

I have already said, so I will not repeat myself at length, that we have increased the bursary element of the student support package and I have cited the figures that show the lower levels of student loan debt in Scotland. Ruth Davidson will be aware that, right now, the work of the commission on widening access is under way, and the commission will advise the Government on what additional steps we need to take to support poorer students to get into university. We will continue to do that hard and serious work and we will have the honest debate about the funding options that Ruth Davidson talks about as we approach the election next year.

Ruth Davidson:

I thank the First Minister for confirming that her position is based on an ideological point of view and that the SNP has written so-called free education on a tablet of stone. It is sad that this First Minister is too stubborn to recognise the need for change, because change is needed.

The facts are these: only one in 10 of our poorest 18-year-olds are getting to university, and someone who is rich is three-and-a-half times more likely to go to university. She talked about her situation growing up. Mine was similar. I was also on a full grant of student support when I went to university, which is what helped me to get there. For all the talk of widening access commissions, this Scottish National Party Government has singularly failed in more than eight years of office to close the gap between rich and poor in respect of access to university.

We have a solution, and it works. All that we ask is that the First Minister has the courage to ditch the stone carvings and the vanity projects and move to practical solutions for our poorest students. Will she?

The First Minister:

Ruth Davidson calls it “ideological”; I call it “principle”. It will be for the people of Scotland to make up their minds. Ruth Davidson will put forward her policy at the election and I will put forward mine, and I am happy to allow the Scottish people to be the judge.

In the meantime, we will continue the hard work to ensure that everyone has an equal chance of going to university. That is why we established the widening access commission. As I said, since 2006, there has been a 50 per cent increase in applications to university from those in the most deprived parts of our country.


Willie Rennie:

I have just listened to exchanges between the First Minister, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale. For five years, I have been lectured by the First Minister on student finance. All the while, her Government was breaking its promise to dump the debt. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer:


Willie Rennie:

It has—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer:

Order. Let us hear Mr Rennie, please.

Willie Rennie:

I have—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer:


Willie Rennie:

I have been lectured for five years. The debt has not been dumped; it has been doubled.


The First Minister:

First, I thank Willie Rennie from the very bottom of my heart for so bravely reminding the Scottish electorate, just a few months before a Scottish Parliament election, of the Liberal Democrats’ record on tuition fees.

Comment: although Liberal Democrat support in the Scottish Parliament was essential to the abolition of the graduate endowment for Scottish students in 2007, the later involvement of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster in raising fees for students in England has been subsequently used quite aggressively by the Scottish Government as a basis for de-legitimising any critique of funding for Scottish students in the Parliament by the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Some press reports in 2007 suggested that protection for bursaries had been offered to secure Lib Dem support for abolishing the GE, but I have not been able to trace that back to any primary source.

Annual statistics on student grants and loans in Scotland due on Tueday 27 October: things to watch for

The Scottish Government’s annual statistics on student funding are due to be published by SAAS at 9.30am on 27 October.  They will cover the academic year 2014-15. These will cover the second academic year under the lower-grant/higher debt system introduced in Scotland in 2013.  They will be  the last such set before the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.

This is a link to last year’s report.  A more user-friendly set of Excel tables is linked further down this post.

What to expect

The total number of students supported should be expected to rise, given extra places were still being fed into the system.

Although UCAS (Table 5) showed a drop of 1,140 in acceptances in 2014, it cautioned that this probably reflected changes in recording practice and could still have been masking a net increase.  Also, UCAS figures won’t have picked up any increase in students studying HN-level courses in colleges or  moving from a college to a degree course.  Provisional 2014 application data from SAAS this time last year suggested a rise of 2,940 in applicants as at September compared to the same point the previous year (Table A14). This doesn’t necessarily imply an equally sharp rise in total cases eventually supported: in previous years only around one-third to one-half of the increase at this stage has translated into final extra cases.  An increase of 1,500 would be just over 1%: that looks like a reasonable expectation.

Lending to students will also rise and more quickly than student numbers. Loan entitlements were increased by a flat £250 in 2014-15.  We already know from the Student Loans Company that total gross lending for the financial year 2014-15 (ie April 2014 to March 2015) was £516m.  A little of that (up to £30m) will have been for fee loans for students going to other parts of the UK, which is shown in the statistics under fee support rather than loans: the figures identified as “loan” in the main tables are for maintenance loans.

An increase of £45m in maintenance-related lending would be worth 10%.  Something in that range looks likely.

Most unpredictable is what will happen with means-tested grants, after last year’s large fall in spending.  There was no change to rates, so claimant numbers will be the critical part of the story.  Last year these actually fell, even though the SFC’s widening access indicators showed increases.  Movements here, and the spending trends, will be worth watching.   The budget for SAAS spending on fees and grants was cash-flat in 2014.


There will be plenty to chew on in these figures.  However, the nature of the news cycle means that what is press released on the day is likely to dominate coverage.  With Scotland down to one full-time education correspondent, it is also likely that whatever goes into any news agency release will pretty much be the story in the most of the print media.

Last year, the SG focussed on the rise in the total amount paid out in all forms of support, drawing a veil over the fact that the large increase was due entirely to loans and concealed cuts to grants. Beyond that, the press notice drew much of its material  from other sets of student-related statistics released the same day: due to changes to reporting cycles, there does not appear to be anything else relevant coming out next week, however (see footnote).  This year the student support figures appear to have to stand alone.

This year, the SG ought again to be able to point to more students than ever on SAAS’s books and higher than ever amounts paid out – although, as before, the latter will rely on increases in loans.

More interesting will be whether the line will try to echo the lines used by the FM and DFM at the SNP’s party conference (identified here), which concentrated on the rising number of students from poorer backgrounds.  That would be consistent with the increased focus on access in the political rhetoric, evident over the past year and seen in the establishment of the Commission on Widening Access. Being able to point to more people than ever before getting income-related grant, or getting any form of SAAS support while coming from lower incomes more generally, would work best there.

However, the statistics are less reliably friendly there.  The highest number on means-tested grant was reached in 2010-11, at 55,490, after the introduction of the Independent Student Bursary, and has been in steady decline since. It would take a substantial increase in recipients of means-tested grants simply to reverse that decline.

Bursary 2009-10 2010-11 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14
YSB 33,715 34,135 33,285 33,140 33,155
YSB (Outside Scotland) 20 5
ISB 18,255 16,755 15,645 17,405
Outside Scotland 1,515 1,535 1,450 1,370
Health Directorate 1,680 1,560 1,470 1,360
All means-tested 36,930 55,490 52,960 51,515 50,560

Watch out for comparisons just of YSB or ISB: several smaller grants have been rolled into those, so comparisons with YSB or ISB figures in the years before 2013-14 would not be like for like.

Separately, the bands used for general information on the distribution of students by income were changed in 2013-14,  so that comparisons with years before that is not possible, not least as, for technical reasons, most zero-income mature students can no longer be distinguished from those whose higher income disqualifies them from means-tested support.

This table picks out some of the figures particularly worth watching, for the the past 2 years (where available) and space to insert the latest figures, for those with the interest and inclination.  The full statistics from last year are available here and include some longer time series: apart from the first summary sheet added by this author, the material is as published by SAAS last year Student support statistics Scotland blog summary Oct 2015.

Notes Table ref (2013-14) 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 Change
1 2 2 cf 1
A1 Total Support
Number of students 135,375 137,295 1.4%
Bursaries and grants
Number of students 54,130 53,450 -1.3%
Amount (£ million) 100.6 64.9 -35.5%
Average per student 1,860 1,210 -34.9%
Number of students 81,640 85,655 4.9%
Amount (£ million) 254.3 429.6 68.9%
Average per student 3,110 5,020 61.4%
A2 Scottish Domiciles
1 Number of students 121,990 123,745 1.4%
EU Domiciles
Number of students 13,385 13,550 1.2%
Amount (£ million) 24.9 25.6 2.8%
2 A6 All receiving any form of support 135,375 137,295
Income not declared / required n/a 90,020
Up to £16,999 n/a 24,630
£17,000 to £23,999 n/a 9,250
£24,000 to £33,999 n/a 9,625
£34,000 and above n/a 3,770
All taking a loan 81,640 85,655
Income not declared / required n/a 48,840
Up to £16,999 n/a 19,375
£17,000 to £23,999 n/a 7,175
£24,000 to £33,999 n/a 7,510
3 £34,000 and above n/a 2,755
% borrowing 67% 69%
Income not declared / required n/a 64%
Up to £16,999 n/a 79%
£17,000 to £23,999 n/a 78%
£24,000 to £33,999 n/a 78%
£34,000 and above n/a 73%
Total amount borrowed (£m) 254.3 429.6
Income not declared / required n/a 229.9
Up to £16,999 n/a 108.8
£17,000 to £23,999 n/a 39.0
£24,000 to £33,999 n/a 40.0
£34,000 and above n/a 12.0
Average amount borrowed (£) 3,110 5,020
Income not declared / required n/a 4,710
Up to £16,999 n/a 5,610
£17,000 to £23,999 n/a 5,430
£24,000 to £33,999 n/a 5,320
£34,000 and above n/a 4,340
A8 Total claimants: income-assessed grants 51,515 50,560 -1.9%
Young Students Bursary 33,140 33,155 0.0%
Independent Students Bursary 15,645 17,405 11.2%
Discontinued grants 2,730 0 -100.0%
A9 Total spending (£m) 89.4 53.0 -40.7%
Young Students Bursary 69.7 40.6 -41.7%
Independent Students Bursary 14.5 12.3 -14.8%
Discontinued grants 5.2 0.0 -100.0%
4 A11 Non-Income Assessed Loan
Number of students n/a 39,980
Amount (£ million) n/a 165.5
Average per student n/a 4,140
Income Assessed Loan
Number of students n/a 45,675
Amount (£ million) n/a 264.1
Average per student (£) n/a 5,780
1: EU students are mainly entitled to fee support only (ie no maintenance grants or loans), unless they meet the SG’s residence requirement
2: data broken down by income was published using different income ranges prior to 2013-14
3: not published – derived from totals, with EU students removed from figures for “income unknown”.
4: figures prior to 201314 not published in a comparable format


The SFC’s participation rate publication, quoted this time last year, have since been somewhat truncated and incorporated into a more general publication, now issued in late March. I haven’t yet worked out what has happened to the Early Destinations figures, also published this time last year, but they are not listed for publication next week.

Evidence to Education Committee inquiry into student funding

This is the evidence I have submitted to the Education Committee’s current inquiry into student funding.  Much of it will be familiar to regular readers of this site.Evidence to Ed Cttee October 2015

Evidence submitted to the Committee is being put up on its site: see here.

As of this evening, there are multiple submissions (a) noting the reduction in bursaries in 2013, (b) identifying as problematic the relatively high dependency on debt to provide living cost support at low incomes and the long-term unfairness of student loan debt being carried disproportionately by the poorest and (c) arguing for grants to be increased.

Making these points has often felt like an isolated, not to say exposed, activity over the two and a half years since this blog was first set up: to see them now being taken forward by others in submissions to the Parliament is immensely welcome. Perhaps we are turning a corner in the way we talk about student funding in Scotland.

Anyone interested in this area should have a look at this body of submissions, which  though still relatively small in number (there may be more to come) are surely the most extensive set of comments gathered publicly on student funding since the last Scottish Government consultation in 2010.  There are also substantial submissions on particular  groups, especially those with experience of care.  Many of the submissions refer to other material known to or gathered by the organisations responding, adding to the value of what’s here.

Can a Scottish student be too much in Scotland to get funding? Apparently so

Back in August, anyone looking to see what was available in clearing for Scots in Scotland might have been surprised (I was) to see a degree in Professional Aviation Pilot Practice being provided by Middlesex University,  based at Tayside Aviation in Dundee.

It’s now emerging that this course is testing how far the Scottish Government is prepared to go in protecting a particular conception of free tuition.  At present, it looks as though defending its view of what “free tuition” should mean may require the Scottish Government to leave some Scottish students doing a full-time undergraduate UK university degree within Scotland with no access to help of any sort with their fees.

[Important note: individual students on this course or interested in it should seek information on the latest position direct from the course organisers or SAAS.  The same is true for the University of Glasgow/Chrisities course also discussed below.]

A full-time UK university undergraduate course in the UK which falls outside Scottish funding rules

The Courier reports that the Scottish Government has ruled that students on the Middlesex/Tayside course are not entitled to loans to cover their cost of their fees, although they would be were they to study in another part of the UK (e.g. at Middlesex’s London campus).  Nor can they get their fees paid by SAAS under the policy of “free tuition” because, although the course is in Scotland, it is not being provided by an institution funded by the Scottish Funding Council.

A temporary arrangement has been put in place for this year, presumably as a safety net for students who have applied under the impression that help would be available, before the position was clear.   But the SG is reported to have given no guarantees about the future. A Scottish Government spokeswoman has explained:

The Scottish Government has made clear that providing eligible students with a student loan of up to £27,000 to take this degree in Dundee directly contradicts that policy. [Note: what “that policy” is, is not explained: I’ll assume here it means free tuition.]

If this course continues in its current form, and the government holds its line, then students attending it from Scotland will be in the unusual position of being on a course provided by a UK university in the UK  but receiving no help in any form with their fees.  They will be a rare (perhaps unique?) case  where  the rhetoric of £9,000 fees as an issue of “ability to pay”  really is borne out by reality.  Ironically, for once the Scottish Government line is very clear about the existence (and advantage) of fee loans, with the spokeswoman adding:

As with any other course validated by an institution based in England, Scottish domiciled students can choose to study in England and receive support through the student loan system to help with tuition fees.

Free tuition in an increasingly cross-border world

Footnote 1 below looks at the legal position.  But it is the policy position which is more interesting: the law after all could be changed if needed – it is all fully within the scope of the Scottish Parliament.

We already knew that “free tuition” was a policy with various exceptions: see footnote 2 below.  As a result, its focus has been clearly on meeting the fees of Scots studying up to their first undergraduate degree at Scottish Government-funded institutions.

But the statement quoted in The Courier suggests the policy has a further element: it appears to require that no Scottish students who are physically studying within Scotland should be able to incur English-level debt for fees, whatever type of institution they attend.

This is an interesting proposition in a world where universities are becoming more experimental.  Overseas campuses are now very common: but what about cross-UK expansion?

The University of the West of Scotland was lately criticised by some for setting up a campus in London.   Heriot-Watt has a “London Associate Campus” (although the courses listed there appear no longer to be taking new entrants). Glasgow Caledonian also has a London campus, offering postgraduate study only.  And there may well be more such examples.

Closer to the Middlesex/Tayside example is Glasgow University’s new undergraduate course in History of Art where students spend the first two years based at Christie’s in London, before going to Glasgow for the second half of their degree. Students pay £15,000 a year to Christie’s for the first two years, then Glasgow fees for the second half.  The course organisers advise (see the “Undergraduate Only” tab here) that:

Christie’s Education is designated by Student Finance England to offer funding for UK and EU Undergraduate students. The maximum amount awarded is £6,000 per year for the first two years whilst at Christie’s Education.

Please note Christie’s Education is not designated by SAAS (Student Awards Agency Scotland), however Undergraduate students may be eligible for SAAS funding whilst at the University of Glasgow for years 3 and 4 of the programme.

[Note:  a separate note on the same site suggests that the Christies element may give access to some fee loan from SAAS: see here.  Interested students should check direct with the course organisers and SAAS]

(Poignantly, the university establishing an arrangement under which a few first-time, full-time Scottish undergraduates will be expected to pay £30,000 in fees, fully upfront, in order to get a particular degree from it, has also appointed as a Professor of Scottish Culture and Governance the former Cabinet Secretary for Education, who was a staunch opponent of any undergraduate tuition fees for Scots, once arguing that these would “destroy Scottish higher education”: see p54 here).

We could therefore end up with a presumably very privileged group (those Glasgow students able to afford to pay £30,000 upfront to Christies) still getting some state cash toward funding their later years of study, but another group, who may be from less privileged backgrounds – those wanting to stay in Scotland entirely to train as a pilot with Tayside Aviation and get a Middlesex degree – facing an almost equally large upfront unfunded cost (£27,000) and receiving no help with their fees at all, which is less than if they had found a similar course elsewhere in the UK.  That feels a little unbalanced.

The theology of free tuition

A quick detour to Norway is useful here.  That country has a much more complete free tuition policy than Scotland. Its publicly-funded universities are free for all undergraduates and post-graduates, including international students.  But something under 10% of Norwegians attend private universities, which charge fees which can be as much as £6,000 a year, for which these students can still borrow from the state. So Norway has a clear ideology that public institutions should be free for all students wherever they are from and at all levels. But having seen to that, it is willing to use some public funds to support participation by its citizens in other, non-free forms of HE within its borders.

A very different ethos is now being exhibited in Scotland, where lending money to students for higher fees incurred within the country at other (in this case, still public) providers is apparently not acceptable. Here’s the SG spokeswoman’s comment again (emphasis added):

The Scottish Government has made clear that providing eligible students with a student loan of up to £27,000 to take this degree in Dundee directly contradicts that policy … Scottish domiciled students can choose to study in England and receive support through the student loan system to help with tuition fees.

All the restrictions on free tuition in Scotland we already knew about could, at least arguably, be traced to some pragmatic justification, in particular affordability.  But the unwillingness to lend money to students on the Middlesex/Tayside course (or others which may follow) for their fees does not seem to come from a practical concern.  The Scottish Government has access to a very large amount of student loan funding via the Barnett formula and is willing to lend it to these students for fees for the same sort of course, if only they will go out of Scotland first.

The objection to lending to this group seems to come from a more clearly ideological position (or, less flatteringly, a presentational concern), that no Scottish student studying within the country’s borders should fall within the English fee structure and its associated level of fee-related debt; or at minimum that the Scottish Government should have nothing to do with such a situation. It’s very different from the rationale of the Norwegian approach.

Controlling what happens to citizens within a territory: the challenge of tangled systems

The Scottish Government is fully entitled to set its funding policies as it chooses, to reflect its own policy priorities.  That’s the point of devolution and can’t be stressed too much.

However if those choices leave some Scots unusually disadvantaged then that would deserve a  justification going beyond, say, political embarrassment that there were some Scots studying physically inside Scotland but incurring English levels of fee debt, supported by the Scottish Government.

A reference in the Courier piece to “productive talks” about “future course options” hints that some solution is being looked for which sidesteps the problem (such as, perhaps, a Scottish academic partner, or making this part of a more traditional sandwich course).  But even if the question is bypassed for now, there could be more such cases to come.  With evidence of some under-supply of government-capped places in Scotland relative to growing demand, it’s not hard to imagine a university in another part of the UK seeing the potential to set up a Scottish-based branch, directly or through a partner body.

In Northern Ireland, which has an acute shortage of places, there is even greater potential scope for such developments: what the Northern Irish government would do in such cases appears not yet to have been tested.

The SG’s response to the Middlesex/Tayside case also raises “do as you would be done by” questions, if Scottish universities want to come to analogous arrangements in the other direction.  It’s not impossible to imagine Scottish universities seeing opportunities to work with partners elsewhere in the UK to provide courses and looking to the funding bodies for English, Welsh and Northern Irish students to underwrite their attendance: Glasgow, as seen, is already doing this.  Might an absence of Scottish fee loans for cross-border outposts in Scotland rebound on further developments by their Scottish counterparts?


Although not everyone is happy about it, higher education institutions are feeling increasingly unconstrained by geography: properly managed, cross-border partnerships between universities, or between universities and specialist bodies,  might allow a richer set of choices for students.  However, a system of student funding driven by the imperative of controlling the situation of its own citizens within its own borders will struggle to maintain its perceived purity in such a world, without leaving some of its students to fall between stools or facing charges of protectionism.  All this is just starting to be tested: the decision in the Middlesex/Tayside case will be worth watching.

Footnote (1): the legal background

The rules about which courses entitle students to fee loans are in The Education (Student Loans for Tuition Fees) (Scotland) Regulations 2006 and specifically section 4.  This includes a rule (4(1)(d))  that

A course shall be designated [as enabling students to get a fee loan] if it is …wholly provided by an educational institution or institutions in the United Kingdom but outside Scotland, maintained or assisted by recurrent grants out of public funds or is provided by such an institution or institutions in conjunction with an institution or institutions outside the United Kingdom.

So the first question is whether the Middlesex/Tayside course is “wholly provided by an educational institution or institutions in the United Kingdom but outside Scotland”. The institution providing the degree is based in London, but the students are in Dundee.

It may be on an interpretation of (4(1)(d)) that the SG has reached its view of ineligibility. But the regulations also provide that:

(5) For the purposes of these Regulations a course is provided by an institution if it provides the teaching and supervision which comprise the course, whether or not it has entered into an agreement with the student to provide the course.

(6) For the purposes of paragraph (1) a university and any constituent college or institution in the nature of a college of a university shall be regarded as maintained or assisted by recurrent grants out of public funds if either the university or the constituent college or institution is so maintained or assisted.

(7) For the purposes of paragraph (1) an institution shall not be regarded as maintained or assisted by recurrent grants out of public funds by reason only that it receives public funds from the governing body of a higher education institution in accordance with section 65(3A) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 [Note: this section deals with situations where a publicly-funded university or college passes funds on to a partner organisation]

Somewhere in these may lie further reasons to deny fee loans to these students. Perhaps (7) suggests that the law does not intend that fee loans should be  available to students attending courses run at arms’ length, although the government line, “As with any other course validated by an institution based in England, Scottish domiciled students can choose to study in England and receive support through the student loan system to help with tuition fees” does not immediately suggest that.

The 2006 regulations have been heavily amended, but I can’t spot an amendment to section 4.   Surreal digression:  one of the official links to subsequent amendments to the regulations takes the reader to The Curd Cheese (Restriction on Placing on the Market) (Scotland) Revocation Regulations 2007 (really: click on 2009/188 in the list in the footnote here).

Footnote (2):

The Scottish Government covers the fees of:

(a)  Scottish-domiciled (and non-UK EU) students studying for a full-time, first-time higher eductaion qualification at a Scottish-government supported HE provider (that is, one funded by the Scottish Funding Council)

… but not of:

(b)  postgraduates, second-time around undergraduates, part-timers with an income over £24,000,  students from the rest of the UK and  international students, who between them account for over half of all enrollments in Scotland and who have to self-fund or find a public or private sponsor; or

(c) Scots studying at a variety of private providers in Scotland (and elsewhere in the UK), who may get a contribution towards their fees, but will have to find the balance themselves; or

(d) Scots who go to study in the rest of the UK, who must borrow the whole fee amount (in contrast to Welsh students, who get a fully portable fee grant for over half their fee cost).

Footnote 3: Living costs

The report does not make clear whether students’ entitlements to living cost support is also in dispute. It may not be:  living cost support, unlike fees, is the same wherever in the UK a student studies, although the course must still be provided by a recognised body, so any problem with the arms’ length arrangement here  could possibly  bite.

Proud of … what exactly? A Scottish Minister comments on student support

A further small example of how difficult is to get those in the Scottish Government to acknowledge its growing reliance on loans to fund students from low incomes.

Commenting today to The Student in this article, the Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment, Marco Biagi, said:

We also need to make sure everyone with the potential can take advantage of studying in a world-class environment like the University of Edinburgh. I’m proud of our record on funding students as well as the universities they study at, having met a series of calls from NUS to find more upfront support to help students with their living costs over the past four year – even amidst Westminster’s austerity.

Two points are worth making.

First, note that the comment carefully avoids acknowedging that this upfront support has been provided entirely through extra loan, with grants being cut at the same time.

Second, the reference to “amidst austerity” is a red herring.  Under the Barnett formula, the Scottish Government has been passed a very large amount of student loan funding that it cannot use for anything else and doesn’t need to spend propping up a high fee regime.   In effect, therefore,  the Minister is proud that the Scottish Government has used student loans to … lend money to students (as opposed to not using them at all, presumably). That’s not self-evidently a great achievement, especially as it was accompanied by  changes which put poorer students more heavily into debt, just to keep their support at the same level it was before,  with any increase in support meaning yet more debt on top. That’s a surprising thing to be proud of, in the context of wanting to improve access.

As ever, observers are left wondering how far members of the Scottish Government actually understand what it is they have done.

Student loans now the Scottish Government’s most valuable financial asset

The growing use of student loans in Scotland has had very little attention in the Scottish Parliament over recent years.  Yet still-to-be-repaid student loans have quietly become the Scottish Government’s most valuable financial asset, worth £2.7bn  on its books, with around one in six Scots between 18 and 60 currently in debt to the government in this way.  Both these figures will rise over the years ahead. The implications of that deserve more scrutiny.

The current position

The Auditor-General’s report on the latest Scottish Government accounts, published on Friday, includes this statement:

The Consolidated Accounts show that the largest financial assets are loans of £2,617 million that have  been made to Scottish Water, to finance its capital investment programmes, and student loans valued at £2,685 million.

Readers will notice that student debt is the larger of the two.  It is, moreover,  due to increase substantially over the next few years.  By the time of the 2021 Scottish elections, the total value of such loans in the SG accounts is likely to be in the range £4.0-4.5bn (see below).

This is – it should be emphasised – not the face value of what the SG is owed i.e. what you get by adding up all the Scottish debts currently held on the SLC’s system.  That’s a  higher figure (£3.5bn), which doesn’t feature in the accounts: it can be found in the SLC’s annual loan statistics (page 1 here).  The £2.7bn is the “fair value”, reflecting what the accountants believe outstanding student loan is really worth to the SG at current prices, once non-repayment, interest rate subsidy and time value of money are all taken into account (see note on p64 here).

The SLC statistics separately show that there are currently 498,100 people with active Scottish loan accounts  (compared to around 3 million people in Scotland between 18 and 60, the age group for which loans will be most relevant).

This is significant stuff in public policy terms.

Change over time

The figure shown in the accounts for student loans has risen constantly over time: the table below takes the figures as far back as appears to be possible from Scottish accounts available on-line.

An upward trend is to be expected, as new borrowers enter the system more quickly than  old ones pay off their debt and leave.  But the figure has risen especially sharply in the last two years, increasing by £657m in that period: it took all of the six years before 2013 to rise by  similar amount.

“Fair value” of loans credited to SG accounts at end of FY Yr-on-yr change
£m £m
2001-02 458
2002-03 703 245
2003-04 854 151
2004-05 990 136
2005-06 1131 141
2006-07 1228 97
2007-08 1371 143
2008-09 1532 161
2009-10 1624 92
2010-11 1766 142
2011-12 1899 133
2012-13 1898 -1
2013-14 2214 316
2014-15 2555 341

Note: The last figure here is lower than the one quoted by the Auditor General.  The accounts give two end-year figures: the AG quotes the higher one, which is more comprehensive.  But here I use the lower one, as the presentation of loans in the accounts changed mid-series: as I’m not clear which is more comparable with earlier years, using the lower figure removes the risk of the change over time being overstated. The difference is due to whether £130m of “loans repayable within 12 months transferred to current assets” is included or not.

The recent rise is not temporary or transitional.  It is a permanent shift, reflecting the decision to make much greater use of student loans to fund student living costs in Scotland since 2013.  The steady position between 2011-12 and 2012-13 was due to an unusually large accounting adjustment, which wiped out 80% of the value of new borrowing in the accounts in 2012-13 (in what looks like just a bit of technical housekeeping).

What’s driving the recent jump can be seen in the pattern of gross new lending, repayments from graduates and the resulting “net new lending” in each year.  This table shows the total amount lent, the amount repaid and therefore  net new growth in lending in each year over the same period.

Gross new loans issued Loans repaid Net new lending
a b a – b
2001-02 225 20 205
2002-03 227 26 201
2003-04 224 36 188
2004-05 209 38 171
2005-06 200 50 150
2006-07 197 51 146
2007-08 211 62 149
2008-09 191 92 99
2009-10 202 92 110
2010-11 228 101 127
2011-12 246 115 131
2012-13 269 122 147
2013-14 436 141 295
2014-15 515 126 389
Note: In 2013-14,  part-way through the financial year, YSB and ISB were substantially reduced and additional loan released for living cost. 2014-15 was the first FY fully under new system.

Looking ahead, gross new lending can be expected to remain at the 2014-15 level and indeed grow some more: there are plans to lend more to postgraduates from this year, for example.  Repayments should increase over time as graduates progress at work, but not much more quickly  than new lending in the near future.   So net new lending approaching £400m a year is a reasonable prediction for the rest of the decade. A “fair value” downward adjustment of 29% (the percentage used in the last 2 sets of accounts) implies the value of the loan asset shown in the accounts should rise by around £280m every year for the next few years.  Hence the likelihood that student loans will be worth in the range £4.0-4.5bn by the end of the next Scottish Parliament in 2021.

What sort of asset is this?

This is a financial asset: it’s not like, say, a building, which the SG can simply sell off to get the value. Instead, revenue from borrowers will trickle in over time, with the annual income gradually rising and reducing what’s needed to spend on new loans.

The UK government is currently banking on a sale of some of the existing loan book, as a way of realising its value more quickly. But, as reported here by Andrew McGettigan, time is running out for the process to be kicked off, if the projected income is to appear in time.  The Scottish Government has stated it has “no plans” to follow suit (it is not clear whether or not it is opposed in principle to selling off these loans: it took part in the sale of a previous batch of older loans in 2013: see here).  McGettigan has argued that in any sale the government would be likely  to have to discount heavily the value of the loans being sold, in order to find a willing buyer.


The scale of student loans in the government accounts means that movements around them deserve careful annual scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament and clear reporting by government.  Up to now, student loans have attracted very little attention.

This author would like much more attention paid to how this substantial government asset is being constructed particularly from the future income of graduates who started from poorer homes, who borrow disproportionately because of Scotland’s very limited use of student grants.  But simply a wider awareness of how much spending now depends on loans, and the scale of the accumulating asset, would be a start.

Another consideration is that any decision whether or not to take part in a UK-government led sale would deserve serious scrutiny in Scotland: if any heavy discounting was involved it would have consequences for future budgets.  That’s aside from questions McGettigan raises about the wider desirability or defensibility of such a sale.

Last, the income which would be lost by writing off past student debt is now very large and rapidly growing, year by year.  Any party wanting in future to promise it would write-off past debt should do its sums carefully (and indeed should still have done so in the past). A government which decided to cut off a future revenue stream to its successors of this value would be operating in very high-stakes territory, whatever its constitutional status and freedoms.

The responsibility of the Scottish Government

The increased use of  student loan by the Scottish Government is driven strongly by changes in the UK budget.  Cuts to the cash budget for HE in England and large increases in loans there have both fed through into the Barnett formula.  So that the Scottish Government is making more use of student loan is not by itself something for which it can be criticised.  That’s an important point. But there’s more to this story than that.

The current administration  is still vulnerable to other criticisms:

Willful blindness in the past:  In the run-up to the 2007 the SNP campaigned strongly on a promise to abolish student debt (new and existing) under the slogan “Dump the Debt”, with a campaign especially focussed on students.  When challenged on the affordability of this, its response was robustly dismissive (as recalled in the second letter here: I’m presuming the author is the then Labour minister of the same name).  But affordability was a substantial point which deserved a more thoughtful hearing (and, as the figures above show, after the event debt was not dumped).

Lack of openness about its change of approach:  there has been a persistent lack of clarity about the extent to which student funding has become more loan-based in Scotland in recent years.  Exhibit A here is the 22 August 2012 press notice announcing the changes due in 2013.  It nowhere explains how the new “minimum income guarantee” will be achieved through a substantial increase in lending (which soon after was budgeted to rise sharply) and accompanied by a cut to grants.  There is still, to the best of this author’s knowledge, no official statement anywhere on the record that grants were cut in 2013.

Conflicting and confusing rhetoric on debt: The then Cabinet Secretary promised the Education Committee in 2013 that work was planned to encourage students to see loans as a good way of funding their studies (it’s not clear what was done to fulfill this promise).  But the default position of high-profile government rhetoric has continued to be that student debt puts off low income students and is something to be avoided, exemplified by comments made by the last First Minister on his last day in office.  There is emerging evidence of substantial ignorance of how the loan scheme works, especially among the least well-off. Fully one-third of the lowest-income young students in Scotland decline to use student loans, and try to get by on less than £2,000 a year of grant-based living cost support from the state. They need more help understanding their options, not reinforcement of their fears.

Lack of interest in the social justice implications of the way it has chosen to use increased loans (the issue which continues to most interest this author): by pouring loan into living cost support and seeing it as interchangeable with grant, the current administration has constructed a student support scheme which uniquely in the UK expects poorer students to borrow more than wealthier ones,  perpetuating inequalities  in wealth.  When this has been pointed out, the government has not been any more receptive than it was to those who pointed out the likely cost of abolishing student loan in 2006-07.

Lack of initiative and imagination: the SG has been given far more loan subsidy than it needs, in the absence of trying to fund a £9,000 fee regime.  It could in theory have done some other things with this than simply find ways to put students into further debt.  It might have (as in Wales) used some of it to pay for writing off an element of students’ debt.  Or it could be using the current debate on powers to object to new rules introduced around 2010, which prevent it from converting whopping amounts of  loan subsidy into smaller but still useful amounts of cash.  There’s a good case to be made that the current rules unreasonably lock away a large element of Barnett funding for one purpose (student loans).  There’s been no sign in public of this point being picked up and argued by the Scottish Government.

The overall impression given is that  the Scottish Government has embraced a substantially  increased use of student loan relatively unthinkingly (indeed almost gratefully, as the cash budget has come under pressure).  This perhaps explains why the White Paper on independence in November 2013 contained a substantial discussion on fees, but on living costs said only that the Scottish Government would “continue to provide appropriate support for living costs”.  There was no mention of what the future might hold for loans or the possible alternatives that a different constitutional settlement might open up, such as a graduate tax.


Government accounts are not there only to tick a box.  They are important in illuminating areas worth discussion and scrutiny.  The use of student loans in Scotland is long overdue that treatment.  Perhaps their emergence as the Scottish Government’s largest financial asset may help them finally get the attention they deserve.

A thoroughly middle class perspective: today’s Guardian article on studying abroad

The Guardian has a long piece today on study abroad as a way of saving on tuition fees, based on a selection of case studies.

Over several pages, readers are briefed on the different fee regimes (nil or very low) in a number of European countries.    But nowhere does the piece find space to offer one vital piece of information: students who go to study in Europe lose their entitlement to grants and loans for living costs (unless they are from Scotland and attend one of a small number of institutions covered by a 2-year pilot scheme which, when figures were last offered, was benefiting fewer than 20 students).

In only one case does the piece look at how the student is managing their living costs.  Discussing Takano, the first in his family to go to university, studying in Denmark, it says:

Financially, he is much better off. His accommodation costs him around £230 a month, including bills. He’s living off savings, with a bit of financial help from his parents. “I’m budgeting quite carefully, so right now I’m surviving on rye bread and tins of food. And I’m looking for a part-time job, because there’s a scheme here where, if you get a job working 10-12 hours a week, then the government will give you £250 a month. You’re also eligible for 0% interest loans.” And, of course, his tuition is free.

Mostly though how students will fund their living costs is a non-issue for the writer (Rosie Ifould) and her interviewees. The only other relevant comment is that rents are often cheaper.

In its own unthinking way, this piece encapsulates all that is wrong about the way we discuss student finance, not only in Scotland but the wider UK.  It’s all about fees. The piece is pretty much irrelevant for any young person who will need help from the state to cover their living costs while at university.  They have to make do with a fleeting reference to the availability of help with living cost support from the Danish government, under some circumstances.

Notice also that Takano’s plan to work at least 10 hours a week while studying full-time is accepted without any comment on how that might impact on his studies or ability to take part in wider university life.  Yet the hidden inequality in patterns of term time working is one of the dogs should be barking louder in current debates. As Prof Claire Callender says in this 2008 article:

Term-time employment among Britain’s undergraduates is a growing phenomenon but it has received scant attention from government and policy makers. … [This article] shows that irrespective of the university students attended, term-time working had a detrimental effect on both their final year marks and their degree results. The more hours students worked, the greater the negative effect. Consequently, students working the average number of hours a week were a third less likely to get a good degree than an identical non-working student. Some of the least qualified and poorest students are most adversely affected perpetuating existing inequalities in HE.

The piece offers instead an unrelentingly middle class perspective, where living cost support is not even worth discussing because, presumably, parents will pay.

No wonder governments in Scotland and England have felt so able to rein back spending on student grants.  The attention of the media remains firmly on saving young people from better off backgrounds from debt for fees, reflecting no doubt the socio-economic background of broadsheet readers (no matter what their ideological position: Rosie Ifould has written an interesting piece on her own upbringing as the child of left-wing teachers).

How those from poorer backgrounds are expected to pay their rent or eat (at all in the case of this article, or without incurring large debts if they stay at home) remains very much a second order issue in the press –  if that.

The quiet sale of some Scottish student loans in 2013 was worth £21m

The Scottish Government Consolidated Accounts for 2014-15, published today, include a figure of £21.4m  for the proceeds of the last batch of mortgage style loans by the Scottish Government in 2013: see p90, here). For more background on the sale of student loans, see footnote 1.

We already knew the 2013 sale had occurred, as the Scottish Government’s participation was referred to briefly in the press notice put out  by the UK government on 25 November 2013: footnote 3, see here.  The UK press notice gave full details of who the loans had been sold to, the total proceeds of the sale (£160m),  how many people were affected (quarter of a million) and what their repayment status was: it’s not absolutely clear if the figures are UK or England-only, but the first seems most likely from the way it is written.

However, there does not appear to have been any parallel announcement by the Scottish Government at the same time (searching the SG news archive for that month and generally googling).

It’s possible an announcement about the transfer of some Scottish student debt to a private body  did not fit well against the publication of the White Paper on independence the day after – but the decision to say nothing official at the time meant that there was nothing on the record here that made it clear that this was happening and there was no information available at all on how much  lending to former Scottish students was at stake and how many  were affected and what their characteristics were  (we still don’t know that).  Relying on a brief reference to the Scottish Government in  footnote 3 of the UK news release was something of  a tangential public information strategy.

Letters may well have been sent to the individual borrowers affected:  but it’s hard to see why the SG judged it was not important for the Scottish public to know what was happening, not least when Scotland accounted for rather more than its population share of the total transaction.  It’s important to note here that (as  the recent PQ response below implies) the SG will have had a choice whether to take part in this sale: they were properly accountable for the portion relating to Scotland.

It’s another case where the ability of those outside government to understand what is happening to student finance in Scotland has been hampered by the government’s selective approach to sharing information that would aid scrutiny.

The accounts also tell a story of a rapidly rising figure for student loan due to be repaid by former Scottish students.  More on that to come.


Mortgage-style loans were the original version of student loan, introduced in 1990.  They were replaced with the current type, income contingent loans, for new students from 1999.  There have been two previous rounds of sales of mortgage-style loans to private sector.  There have been no sales so far of income contingent loans, though as Andrew McGettigan has written recently, the UK government budget plans still anticipate proceeds from such a sale and time is running out for a decision (PQs have elicited the answer that the SG has “no plans” to participate in such a sale: see S4W25458 here).

Footnote (2)

Anyone looking at the accounts will see that the sale proceeds represented a £1.7m loss based on the “carrying value” of £23.1m. In essence, the £23m is what the calculation of what the loans would have been worth in the accounts as a government asset,  had they been kept.  Bearing in mind that the SLC will no longer have to fund collecting these loans, £1.7m seems likely to be an unexceptional figure here.  The audit of the accounts makes no comment.  It may a minor point worth checking, but is probably not a story.

Water: another rhetoric/reality problem in Scotland

Student funding is not the only issue where the practice of government threatens to collide with political rhetoric in Scotland.

Another such is the provision of water services to non-domestic customers. I wrote a piece back in May about the dilemma facing the Scottish government in re-letting the contract for certain water services to the public sector (published here).

The issue remains unresolved – or at least appears to.  I’ve brought the story up to date (see here), as far as is possible from the information readily available.  In short, it is unclear who will be providing the “retail service” of water and waste water to Scotland’s schools, hospitals and other public (and some voluntary) sector bodies after next Wednesday (30 September).  Those bodies may have been told more than has been announced to the public, of course; or there may have been an announcement that even creative googling does not turn up.  Still, the absence of any evident information or debate about this is surprising, given what was in the press back in February.

Whatever is actually going on here, it offers another interesting case study of the potential for tension between expressed principles and actual decisions in contemporary Scottish government and the relatively unscrutinised context within which such tensions are being played out.


Recent PQs on this here.

The Greens and grants: a cross-border contrast

There are two separate Green parties in the mainland UK: one for England and Wales and one for Scotland.  As the UK government has followed Scotland by planning cuts to student grants, the reaction of the Green Party at Westminster has brought out how different the response of the Scottish Greens has been.


Since the UK government announced its intention to abolish grants for new students from England from 2016, the Green Party of England and Wales has been especially active in organising opposition, quickly  announcing that it would “campaign furiously” against the move (badged as #KeepThe Grants).  It has supported an early day motion (discussed here) and launched a petition on 38 Degrees, which has collected almost 45,000 signatures. It reportedly hopes to call a parliamentary debate.

This is consistent with the Party’s manifesto  for the recent UK election included these commitments:

  • Cancelling student debt issued by the Student Loans Company and held by the government. Taking account of the loans that it is expected would never be re-paid, the total value of these loans is estimated to be around £30 billion. Assuming that these loans would be paid off over the next 25 years, and taking account of interest, this amounts to around £2.2 billion a year in revenue that the government would not receive.
  • Reintroducing student grants costing £2.2 billion over the Parliament. In the longer run we would support student living costs through the Basic Income.

(Watchers of Scottish politics will recognise that very similar commitments were included in the SNP’s 2007 manifesto.)


In the summer of 2012, the Scottish Government announced changes to the student funding system in Scotland, to take effect for all students from autumn 2013. These changes involved a 40% cut to spending on student grants, with the gap to be made up by loan (with further loan made available, to increase the total amount of upfront funding).  The net effect was a substantial increase in the borrowing required by poorer  students just to maintain their existing levels of support: cash losses were typically between around £900 and £1600 a year, including for students mid-course. More loan was also made available to middle and higher income students, to increase their access to some form of support.  Total student borrowing rose by 69% in 2013-14.  The changes meant that, as in England from next year, the poorest students were now expected to be the heaviest borrowers.  All these effects are described in more detail elsewhere on this site.

The grant cuts were not immediately obvious from Scottish Government statements, as they were not revealed to be part of the package in the relevant news release: however, by October they had come to light and since 2013 have received a reasonable amount of media coverage.

The response from the Scottish Greens here has been very different from that of their counterparts at Westminster.  Searching the party’s website (using individually “student”, “grant”, “bursary”, “loan” and “debt”) and googling more generally, they do not appear to have made any statement over the past three years criticising these cuts or the resulting increased debt.

The only occasion on which the party appears to have taken a public position on the changes was a parliamentary debate on 5 June 2013, on a motion put down by the Labour Party which included a call to reverse the grant cuts (see below).  Neither of the two Scottish Green MSPs (Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone) used the occasion to speak against the cuts, meaning either that they did not request to speak or were not called to speak, despite a request: it is not possible to tell which.  They instead voted with the government, to defeat the motion (emphasis added):

That the Parliament notes the introduction of the minimum income guarantee for students; notes that grants for lower-income students are being cut; believes that lower-income students are being financially disadvantaged in Scotland compared to elsewhere in the UK; does not accept that lower-income students should be disadvantaged in order to provide support for those from better-off households, and believes that the cuts to grants for lower-income students should be reversed in order to address inequality in access to higher education in Scotland.

by voting in support of a government amendment which removed any reference to the cuts:

The Parliament believes that access to university should be based on ability to learn, not ability to pay; further believes that neither upfront nor backdoor tuition fees have any place in Scotland; welcomes the removal of tuition fees, saving around 125,000 students up to £27,000 compared with England; further welcomes the introduction of the minimum income guarantee to give the poorest students a minimum income of £7,250 per year in maintenance support from 2013-14 and the increase in the minimum level of student loan to £4,500 a year for every eligible student, and agrees with comments by the National Union of Students Scotland that Scotland has ‘the best support package in the whole of the UK.

This was surprising, for although the manifesto for the Scottish Greens at the last Holyrood election in 2011 was more cautious on student funding than the one for England and Wales in 2015, it still touched on debt, stating:

we will place a priority on funding education and research, ending student poverty, and keeping student debt down

The party had also made a number of statements in the period leading to the election, highlighting the SNP’s failure to meet its commitments on student debt, stating:

(on 12 March) Alex Salmond deceived students before, in 2007 when he pledged to abolish student debt, a policy they dropped as soon as they took office… Patrick Harvie MSP said: “Many people fell for the SNP pledge to scrap student debt in 2007 … That pledge in 2007 wasn’t in the small print, either. It was one of their seven key pledges, and it was just as empty then as today’s hot air.”

(on 16 March)  Ahead of the last election the SNP promised to abolish student debt, but this pledge was quickly abandoned when they came to office. … Like Labour, the Tories and now the Lib Dems, the SNP have let students down and that will not be quickly forgotten.

In 2015 the party’s Westminster manifesto covered the party’s position on tuition fees in Scotland and the rest of the UK, but was silent on grants:

We support maintaining free university tuition in Scotland and ending tuition fees across the UK

However, a BBC report of the manifesto launch reported that the party “wants a non-repayable student grant” and a separate 2015 Policy Summary does make a commitment on grants:

Students in further and higher education will receive the Citizens’ Income, which will effectively restore student maintenance grants.

… all students will be entitled to a non-repayable living grant

The Scottish party could certainly argue that grant  has occupied a more ambiguous position in its recent manifestos than is the case in England and Wales.  Even so, from the language used any reader (or student voter) might reasonably have expected the Scottish Greens  to have used their position to oppose reducing the amounts provided to poorer students as cash rather than loan, rather than to avoid making critical comments and cast their votes in support of the Scottish government position.

How far are the differences explained by different circumstances in Scotland?

Most obviously, students here are not required to borrow anything for their tuition, whereas in England they face up to £9,000 in fee loans.

As a result of free tuition, it is certainly true that the withdrawal of grant in Scotland came on top of lower existing levels of debt than will be the case in England.  However, it would be heroic to argue that, simply because of free tuition, a 40% reduction in grants for low-income students, losing them over £30m a year and pushing the expected debt for a degree for those at low incomes well over £20,000, was consistent with a commitment to “keeping student debt down”.   The Green campaign at Westminster gains extra force from the higher total debt there: but it is not only about that.  It is also about the way cutting grant means the poorest students end up being the highest borrowers – as now happens in Scotland. (Also, to complicate matters, the pre-existing higher debt in England means the cuts in Scotland are in practice more likely to represent an extra real cost after graduation – explained here).

It might be argued that the Greens in England are facing the complete abolition of grants, while in Scotland a small amount remains.  However,  the Scottish maximum for a young student is only £1,750 a year, falling to £500 at incomes of just £24,000 (and the maximum for a mature student is only £750).    Young students in Scotland from homes with an income below £34,000 are now expected to borrow between 77% and 92% of their living cost support. The difference between 100% and 92% would not be much on which to hang such a large difference in response.

Further, low income students could choose either to replace their lost grant with loan or decline to borrow more.  We now know (thanks to questions put down by other parties) that a substantial minority of low-income students simply took the hit on their income rather than take on extra loan to make up the loss: the existence of a substantial group of low-income debt-averse students calls into question how far support for grant cuts was consistent with the commitment  to “ending student poverty”.

One other substantial difference between Scotland and England has been the position of the NUS.  While the NUS south of the border has been very critical of the plan to  abolish grants, the large cuts in Scotland were part of package agreed with NUS Scotland, which welcomed it. The strongly pro-government position taken by NUS Scotland in 2013 has been one of the most striking, and influential, aspects of what has happened here: it is discussed further in this post. The then NUS President, Robin Parker, signed a message to members (NUS email 22 August 2012) including the new grant rates (but no explanation that these were lower than before, focussing instead on the availability of much more funding in total)  stating:

These financial increases will come on line from September 2013, and will benefit every Scottish student studying a higher education course in a university or college, that could be over 120,000 of our members, every single year. ….Today is a great day for the student movement in Scotland, so take some time to savour it.

Although according to Wikipedia, Robin Parker had been active in the Young Greens, he stood for NUS Scotland as an independent and there’s no immediate evidence of a continuing connection to the party.  Thus a particularly close connection between NUS and the Greens does not  appear to explain the lack of critical scrutiny the party brought to bear: but it does seem likely that the NUS position played some part in neutralising any Green critique more generally.

The NUS position was influenced in turn by the Scottish Government’s decision to improve upfront living cost support at most incomes by increasing loan, so that for the first time some students would be entitled to over £7,000 in total.  Interestingly, in England the UK government is also planning to accompany grant cuts with a substantial increase in the total maximum value of living cost support, to £8,200: but in contrast to Scotland this has not been seen by the NUS or Greens in England as justifying the regressive impact of removing grant.

Conclusion: in the shade of fees

Small parties who don’t enter a coalition don’t get the chance to  break their promises in government: they have to be judged largely on how they respond to what governments do or fail to do and how well they hold them to account.

Both the English/Welsh Green Party at Westminster and the Scottish Greens at Holyrood have been confronted with grant cuts, having positioned themselves as anti-debt.  The first has opposed such cuts vigorously: the second has been supportive of the government and declined to join other opposition parties in criticism.

The particular influence of free tuition on Scottish politics is almost certainly casting a long shadow here.  Working through Scottish Green Party statements on student funding brings out how free tuition dominates their thinking. Prior to the 2011 election, a strong theme of the party’s campaigning was that the SNP could not be trusted to keep any promises on free tuition.  Grants and reduced debt have not been nearly so central to Scottish Green campaigning.

The Scottish Government has been remarkably successful in persuading those sympathetic to free tuition that (a) grant cuts have nothing to do with funding fees, but (b) opposing the cuts is equivalent to wanting to bring in not only fees, but fees at the English level, for all students (a position well-exemplified by the then Cabinet Secretary’s closing speech in the June 2013 debate).  Against that background, the unwillingness of the Scottish Greens to say anything critical about the grant cuts may be connected to their competition with the SNP to be seen as the “real” party of free tuition – a competition likely to be particularly important to the Greens, as they compete with the SNP for support from students (and ex-students) looking for a political home from within the radical independence movement.

In June 2013 the Scottish Greens may thus have been uncomfortable supporting the Labour motion,  vulnerable as it was to being read – as SNP MSPs firmly did – as an attack on free tuition.  However, that didn’t require the Scottish Greens to vote it down, far less actively to vote for the government alternative which wrote the grant cuts out of the parliamentary record.  They were free to propose an alternative amendment (as the Conservatives did) or simply to sit on their hands.  They have of course always been free to mount a campaign, start a petition or issue a statement. One of the more striking things here is that the Scottish Greens do not ever appear to have been put under pressure from any quarter to explain why they have not been more challenging about the effects of the 2013 changes on low income students.

As it is, although on 24 March 2011 the party referred to “the other parties, each of which in turn has broken promises to students”,  the Scottish Greens’ decision to support the government in June 2013, together with their more general silence on the issue, means their own actual record since 2011 sits uneasily with their manifesto and other policy commitments. The  Scottish Greens turn out to form part of the wider story of conflicting pre-election promises and post-election actions in relation to student funding to which  most parties, somewhere in the UK at some time, have contributed, as discussed here.

As a completely separate party the Greens at Westminster would be entitled to distance themselves from events in Scotland.   Ironically, come the Scottish elections in 2016, the Scottish Greens stand to benefit from the noise being made down south about grants, which will only grow as next May approaches.  They may even echo the criticisms.  On 8 July, the day the UK government announced its planned cut to grants,  Patrick Harvie retweeted two tweets: one from Caroline Lucas commenting  “Nothing progressive about saddling students with more debt and making future generations pay for problems of today” and one from a Scottish Green Party press officer and prospective Holyrood candidate for next year,  stating “Abolishing grants for poor students while cutting inheritance tax on dead millionaires. Subtlety isn’t his strong point, is it?” (the original of this second tweet was retweeted over 200 times, helping secure an association between the Scottish Greens and opposition to grant cuts).

Come next May, many voters will probably be unaware that in voting for the Scottish Greens they will be voting for a quite separate party from the one represented by Caroline Lucas,  which unlike its counterpart at Westminster does not have a track record of using its parliamentary standing to challenge grant cuts or rising debt for poorer students.

UCAS figures – comparing figures for disadvantaged students from Scotland and the rest of the UK

There’s been a bit of argument recently about the significance of much lower levels of participation recorded for Scotland by UCAS for 18 year olds from poorer backgrounds, compared to the rest of the UK.

The Scottish Conservatives noted recently that the proportion of 18 year olds getting a place through UCAS from the most deprived areas (9.7% at the point reported) was lower than the equivalent figure for England (17%). This was an accurate report of UCAS data (most recent set here).

However, as noted by the Scottish Government among others in response, this overlooks the significant numbers undertaking HE in an FE college, not covered by UCAS.

This is not a new debate.  Opposition politicians have been using differences in these figures to beat up Scottish administrations since well before 2007 and the government line in response has been in use for as long. It is technically right, but deserves some unpicking.

The problem is that there is rather less sub-degree HE in the non-Scottish parts of the UK than in Scotland (see Figure 1, page 4 here), but most of what there is appears to be recruited through UCAS; meanwhile in Scotland  there’s a much larger amount of HE provided in FE colleges, pretty much all at sub-degree level, which is not recruited through UCAS at all (there’s also some sub-degree provision in Scottish universities, not least UHI).  Indeed, it’s the HE provided in colleges which gives Scotland the edge in overall participation rates: participation in university-level HE is pretty similar in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK (same link as before: around one-quarter of under-21s in both Scotland and England are on degree-level courses).  There’s around one young entrant to college-level HE for every two to an HEI (Table N here).

So to use UCAS data to compare the percentage of disadvantaged young people recruited onto degree-level courses you ought to take a little bit off both sets of figures,  as in both nations whatever sub-degree provision  is recruited through UCAS is likely to be biased towards the most disadvantaged.  How much should be deducted unfortunately would be a complete guess from the available data.  But there is still likely to be a large gap between the two nations for disadvantaged students – there just isn’t enough sub-degree level activity in England to make that much difference.

However, to compare the percentage of disadvantaged young people in any form of HE you need to adjust the Scottish figure upwards significantly. The gap would probably disappear completely – Scotland might even do better than England.

Sub-degree HE in FE colleges is a very important part of the Scottish system.  However, we also know that HN-level qualifications by themselves do not confer such a large earnings advantage (they do not open the door to the same range of well-paid professions, for example).  At the most technical level, an HN and a degree are not of equal weight in educational terms – see the Scottish Credit and Qualification Framework.  But perhaps more telling is the behaviour of students (and parents and schools) themselves.  Young people from more privileged backgrounds vote with their feet.

HE in FE has a much stronger social bias towards students from more disadvantaged backgrounds than university-level HE (see table 25 here).   Unsurprisingly, the  gap in the UCAS data – and the implied influenced of HE in colleges – reduces as social advantage rises: see table (from 28 August UCAS data here).

England Scotland England as a % Scotland
POLAR3 Q1 18.1 10 181%
POLAR3 Q2 24.8 14.2 175%
POLAR3 Q3 30.2 18.6 162%
POLAR3 Q4 36 23.4 154%
POLAR3 Q5 44.9 35.2 128%

As long as there’s a strong social divide in who does what, it’ll be an indication that one path is more valued, whether for intellectual, social or economic reasons.

The distinction between types of HE is reflected too in the political rhetoric.  The First Minister has spoken of giving young people from disadvantaged backgrounds equal access specifically to university and this is reflected in the remit of the current Commission on Widening Access, which is unlikely to be accidental.

To come back to the UCAS figures, it’s true the absolute numbers can’t be compared directly, particularly when HE in general is the issue: but they still suggest different relative levels of access to the most highly-valued parts of the HE system in different parts of the UK.   The underlying issue is who gets access to what sort of higher education and how much that matters. As so often in cross-UK comparisons, the issue is how far (and when) it makes sense to regard all HE as equal.

In valuing HNs, as we should, it could be easy to slip into assuming that as long as more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds can get onto those courses, the access box has been sufficiently ticked. That’s not far from assuming that all the important social mobility was achieved after the Robbins report and the 1990’s university expansion and there’s not really that much untapped degree-level potential left in the children of the remaining non-graduates – and, returning to the UCAS figures, that this is particularly true in Scotland.  That would be a pleasantly comfortable assumption for those whose families are already on the more privileged side of the divide: but it’s not so helpful for everyone else.







Clearing update: 95% of remaining courses for Scots in Scotland in three HEIs

Further to the running tally on clearing in Scotland here, a last look at what’s still on the UCAS website for Scots in Scotland (looking specifically at full-time undergraduate degree courses lasting at least 3 years).

Half the courses listed at the start of August have been removed from the UCAS site – though that’s partly due to what looks (at first sight) like a re-think by Heriot Watt about what should have been listed for it initially.  95% of the remaining courses are in three institutions: UHI, SRUC and UWS.  It follows that there still appear to be spaces for Scots in Scotland, but very concentrated in specific parts of the system, raising questions about the distribution of funded places versus the actual pattern of student demand – an issue which becomes increasingly important as student demand outstrips available places, as discussed here.

There may be good arguments for the current position. It may even be that the apparent high concentration of vacancies in certain places is misleading and simply an artefact of the different ways institutions present themselves on the UCAS site.  There may be some behind the scenes shuffling of resources going on which means that, despite appearances, spare supply is being moved to meet patches of higher demand.

What’s missing here is any public discussion between the Scottish government and others about all this.  At minimum, it deserves a bit of attention and explanation.

Disclaimer: students still seeking places should check the UCAS site direct and not rely on the information here.

04-Aug 01-Sep
Aberdeen 0 0
Abertay 14 0
Dundee 3 0
Edinburgh 0 0
Edinburgh Napier 1 1
Glasgow 5 2
Glasgow Caledonian 0 0
Glasgow School of Art 1 0
Heriot Watt 75 0
Queen Margaret 10 4
Robert Gordon 3 0
Royal Conservatoire 0 0
Scotland’s Rural College 16 16
St Andrews 0 0
Stirling 3 0
Strathclyde 0 0
UHI 56 46
UWS 96 59
Total 283 128
86% 95%