As working class students struggle to cope with the cost of going to university, Dani Garavelli asks why Scotland’s policy has failed to open access to higher education
The day Aidan Kerr found out he’d got the results to get into Glasgow University he travelled to his mum’s work and they jumped round her office together, whooping with excitement. The previous year, he’d gazed wistfully at its historic tower through the train window as he made his way from Coatbridge to Langside College (where he was studying for an HNC), and dreamed of being the first in his family to make it to an elite academic institution. “That was the proudest day of my life,” says Kerr. “I knew I had some intelligence, but this felt like proof that I was as good as anyone else.”
Kerr is from what he regards as an ordinary working class background: his father, who left school at 14, is a steelworker turned auxiliary nurse; his mother, an NHS administrator. He spent most of his fifth year at St Ambrose High mucking about, but in sixth year he developed an interest in politics and history and decided not to follow his friends into apprenticeships.
The “A” he got in his social sciences HNC was his entry ticket to study history at Glasgow, but, with resources tight, his journey to a degree has not been entirely smooth. Unable to afford to move out of his family home, he commutes an hour each way every day at a cost of £206 over 10 weeks. Together, his parents earn more than the £34,000, which is the current threshold for grants or bursaries, so he has to rely on their help or what he can raise through work or loans. For the first two years, he did three shifts a week at McDonald’s, but it impacted on his studies, so this year – his third – he has taken out the maximum student loan he is entitled to: £4,750. Next year, he will do the same, so he will finish university with a debt of almost £10,000, and no guarantee of a job. “Well before I get a degree, my friends will be fully-qualified tradesmen earning good money, whereas, when I walk out, I will be a novice undergraduate with no work experience. But my rationale is that, hopefully, one day, I’ll be earning more than them and I’d rather be thinking deep thoughts about politics than out on a roof in the rain,” he says.
For someone like me, who went to university in the 1980s, the challenges students like Kerr face are incomprehensible; and he is not even amongst the poorest. Sizeable grants and access to housing benefits meant I could move into a flat even though my family lived 30-odd miles down the coast. Hardly anyone I knew worked during term-time and, when I finished, a second grant meant I could go do a postgraduate diploma in journalism and still embark on my career unencumbered by debt.
Almost 30 years on, the funding situation is very different; unlike in England, school-leavers from Scotland do not have to pay tuition fees to study here, but the grants given to those from less affluent backgrounds have been dramatically cut and students have become increasingly dependent on loans to cover their living costs.
Figures released last week by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) showed the amount handed out in bursaries had dropped by 36 per cent since 2006, while student loans had almost doubled from £254m to £467m in the past two years. Perhaps predictably, the highest debts were being incurred by the poorest students; 19,665 of Scotland’s least well-off students took out an average loan of £5,870 a year in 2014 compared with fewer than 1,855 students from better-off homes who took out an average loan of £4,600.
At the same time, figures from UCAS suggest the proportion of young people from the most deprived fifth of the population going to university in Scotland has risen from 7.3 per cent in 2011 to 9.7 per cent in 2015, compared with a rise from 13.8 per cent to 17 per cent in the same period in England (although these figures are not entirely comparable because they don’t take into account that some higher education courses are undertaken in colleges in Scotland).
All these statistics have sparked an ideological war of words. Free higher education has been the cornerstone of SNP policy. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon believes the introduction of fees would put many from her own background off attending university, while Alex Salmond was so wedded to the policy he had it carved into his (in)famous “the rocks will melt with the sun” stone. In 2007, the party scrapped the graduate endowment tax introduced in 2001.
But the SNP is also committed to closing the educational attainment gap, bringing more students from deprived backgrounds into universities, and to lowering student debt. Critics, including Lucy Hunter Blackburn, a former civil servant with the Scottish Government, say the figures show that – far from helping to widen access, as the SNP hoped – free tuition is a middle-class subsidy, paid for from the grants that once supported the poorest. They believe the policy is creating a two-tier system, with those from less affluent backgrounds under greater pressure and experiencing a higher number of dropouts. The Scottish Funding Council figures show the retention rate for students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas is 87.3 per cent – 4 per cent below the total retention rate of 91.3 per cent.
Even NUS Scotland, which initially supported the increase in loans, believes the Scottish Government needs to rethink the cuts in bursaries to stop those from the least affluent backgrounds giving up.
“Now the new system has had time to bed in, it has become absolutely clear we need to start focusing the way student support is delivered and to increase the amount of grant poorer students have access to,” says NUS Scotland president Vonnie Sandlan.
To understand students’ current financial plight, it is necessary to look at their entitlement. Since 2012 – when grants were dramatically cut – only undergraduates with household incomes of less than £34,000 have been eligible for Young Student Bursaries or Independent Student Bursaries. In 2015/16, those with a household income of less than £17,000 – £8,500 lower than the national average – will receive £1,875; those whose household incomes are between £17,000 and £24,000 will receive £1,125; and those between £24,000-£34,000, £500.
In terms of loans, those whose household incomes are greater than £34,000 can borrow £4,750 a year, while those whose household incomes are less than £34,000 can borrow £5,750 a year. This means the poorest could receive a total income of £7,625 a year and leave with debts of up to £23,000.
Independent students are eligible for a bursary of £750 only if their household income is less than £17,000, but they can take a loan of up to £6,750 a year. Most universities will offer their own scholarships and bursaries, but research carried out by Edinburgh University in 2013 suggested income from fees meant English institutions spent more than three times as much as Scottish institutions on supporting poorer students.
Statements from the Scottish Government always place an emphasis on students staying at home, but this is not a realistic option if you live in the Borders or the Highlands, and even if you live within easy commuting distance of a university, it may not offer the best course for your purposes. In addition, those at the sharp end of student welfare say staying at home can bring extra pressures and make it difficult to take part in wider university life. “Staying at home is a totally different experience than staying in a flat,” says Kerr. “I haven’t made many friends because, for me, university is something you do from 9am to 5pm.”
On the other hand, it’s far from clear the income available to the poorest students would cover the cost of renting a flat plus living expenses, particularly in cities such as Edinburgh or Aberdeen, where already prohibitive rents are rising. With limited finances, those who do move out are often tempted to accept substandard accommodation, with dodgy landlords and risks to health and safety.
Many undergraduates try to supplement their grants/loans with full or part-time jobs, but this makes it tougher to compete in an environment where – by dint of their backgrounds – they may already be at an educational disadvantage. Kerr says that, after two years, he found it impossible to combine work and study as he was already playing catch-up on his private school peers.
“It wasn’t just doing the work, it was trying to keep up to the same standard as the rest of the class because, however well St Ambrose or Langside College prepares you, you’re not as well prepared as someone from Loretto or St Aloysius,” he says. “History is so reading-intensive, there’s no way I’d have been able to do more than one shift a week, and really, what’s the point of going to university if you’re not giving it your best shot?”
Sandlan believes the benefits of further and higher education ought to extend beyond learning to personal development. “We need to talk about equality of opportunity and to ask which students would stay at home and which students would have the confidence and financial backing to move away. We want to make sure they all have the opportunity to leave home if that’s what’s right for them.”
Of course, widening access to universities is about more than making sure working class students can afford to stay at university. The existing gap in educational attainment means the vast majority of pupils from schools in the most deprived areas, such as Govan High, are unlikely to achieve the grades that would allow them to apply in the first place. That gap can only be addressed by focusing resources earlier in a child’s education.
Yet the question-mark over the free tuition policy is still crucial: is it the bedrock of a fair society – as the SNP and NUS Scotland contend – or a piece of populism that creates the illusion of equality of opportunity while actively undermining it? Evidence from England is inconclusive: right-wing commentators insist the higher percentage of students from the most deprived backgrounds south of the Border shows fees do nothing to deter poorer students. But other research suggests English graduates will still be repaying their debts at 50, while a study published last week suggested the cost of fees was leading some students to get involved in prostitution.
Either way, it is impossible at present to conceive of any party being able to sell the introduction of fees to a Scottish electorate for whom free tuition is axiomatic. But many within academia believe change will eventually come because higher education institutions will demand it.
Already Scottish universities have to attract more postgraduate, English and international students to bolster their income. In February, Professor Craig Mahoney, principal of the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), warned his institution had a multi-million-pound shortfall compared with its English competitors. “I think the financial pressure on the universities is such that they will be looking for it within 10 years,” says one Scottish academic.
When it comes to the current funding situation, the SNP argues Scottish students receive the highest level of support in the UK, while the lack of fees means they continue to have the lowest debts. It points out that the household income threshold for the maximum bursary is rising to £19,000 next year, while the UK government is introducing a loans-only model.
But this doesn’t help students who are currently struggling to make ends meet. Kerr says he considered dropping out after the summer when he had been working full-time. “I was earning so much money, the temptation not to go back was very strong. I could have afforded to move out and would probably have moved up the ladder quite quickly,” he says. What keeps him going is pride, a Scottish thrawnness and a desire to show that people from “ordinary” backgrounds are as capable of getting a degree as anyone else. “I want to be able to say to my children: ‘I went to university’,” he says. “But also I’m aware that if people like me drop out, it affects the way working class students will be perceived in the future.” «