Johnstone’s View - Importance of student support funding

Once again, the photograph of former First Minister Alex Salmond posing next to a large boulder with his quote on tuition fees has been doing the rounds.

This has been for two reasons, the first is that it has been alleged that his lackeys struggled to find a university willing to host the monolith, with the stone not getting much of a welcome either.

The second has been the long running battle between Labour and the SNP about who has the most open-handed benevolence towards our students.

With Aberdeen and Robert Gordon Universities, two institutions which enjoy outstanding reputations on our doorstep, the issue of higher education and how student support is funded is an important one for those across the Mearns looking to move on to university.

It is an argument that seems set to run and run, because both the SNP and Labour are of the view that free higher education helps the poorest students. It’s an attractive, albeit simplistic argument.

But it is one that does not stand up to scrutiny.

Yes, it’s true that there has been an increase in the percentage of Scotland’s 18 year olds from the 20% poorest backgrounds going to university in the last decade.

In 2006 it was just around 7% and last year it was 9.7% so when Nicola Sturgeon or John Swinney proclaim that it has never been easier for poorer students to get to university there is a modicum of truth about that statement.

However, it hides the real story. In England just under 18% of the poorest students now attend university, just a fraction more than in Wales and in Northern Ireland.

Worse still, the gap is getting wider because the rate of progress in Scotland is much slower than it is in the rest of the UK.

The SNP response to this is twofold; firstly, they say free higher education is a “right” and must be protected at all costs and secondly, they say reforms to university outcome agreements will automatically increase the number of poorer students going to university over the coming years so we just need to wait a bit.

They berate any politician who dares to question this so-called egalitarian approach to student finance.

The trouble is that this “free” policy is no such thing. Indeed the main beneficiaries, as described by one of the Scottish Government’s own former higher education advisers, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, are the more wealthy students.

Plus, the latest SAAS statistics show that students in Scotland from the lowest household income groups are increasingly reliant on loans rather than non-repayable grants and bursaries.

Not only has the number of students receiving grants and bursaries in Scotland fallen by 2% between academic year 2013-14 and 2014-15 but so too has the average amount paid out.

In 2013-14 the average pay out was £1,860 but last year it was £1,220. This is a significant difference and certainly nothing to be proud of. Naturally, this has meant a rise in average annual borrowing.

The SNP will try another ruse. They argue that comparisons are not really accurate because in Scotland the statistics don’t include those pupils from poorer backgrounds who are doing HNC and HND courses at colleges. But this doesn’t work either since these qualifications carry much less weight when it comes to student destinations and the wider opportunities which university graduates have in the labour market.

A fact that you won’t find carved in stone is that England is making much better progress than Scotland when it comes to looking after student finance for the poorer students.

When Nicola Sturgeon said at First Minister’s Questions that Scotland “delivers the best student package anywhere in the UK” she was, frankly, being a little too economical with the truth. The clear evidence is that fees in England have not discouraged students wanting to go to university, nor have they caused greater inequality as a combination of HESA and UCAS statistics prove.

It is, in my view, a folly to look at tuition fees in isolation, as though that alone is the panacea to getting students from poorer backgrounds into University. The fact is that the cost of student support must be taken into account as well.

If the SNP and Labour are hell-bent on “free” higher education they must tell the Scottish electorate ahead of 2016 by how much taxes will rise or what other areas of public spending will be cut, and no doubt Scotland’s colleges will be right on hand to tell them about the dangers of the latter option.

If we truly want to help students meet their aspirations, we cannot afford to indulge in simplistic, jingoistic policies and stunts. It is the students themselves who will be paying the price for this in years to come.