Widening access with greater borrowing powers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post first appeared at the author’s personal site

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