Student support at Scottish universities requires ‘radical reform’

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Hard-up students at Scottish universities have been awarded almost £30 million in emergency financial support in the past three years, analysis has revealed.

More than 25,000 applications were made to the Scottish Government’s Discretionary Fund in that time, with around 78 per cent being approved, data obtained by The Scotsman found.

78 per cent of applications for a Discretionary Fund were approved in the last three years. Picture: Jane Barlow

78 per cent of applications for a Discretionary Fund were approved in the last three years. Picture: Jane Barlow

The Discretionary Fund provides grants, which do not need to be paid back, to students from across the UK who are studying north of the Border and in financial difficulty.

The National Union of Students (NUS) said it proved the need for “radical reform” of how cost-of-living support is offered to those in full-time higher education.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said it was investing record amounts in student support.

Ministers have previously pledged to increase the percentage of Scottish university entrants from the poorest backgrounds to 20 per cent by 2030.

An independent review of student support was carried out in 2017 and in response the Scottish Government pledged to increase access to bursaries for students from low-income families.

While the number of applications to the fund has remained steady year-on-year, the NUS said the volume of applications was unsurprising given the record amount of debt students were racking up as part of their studies.

Applications to the Discretionary Fund must be made through individual universities, with eligibility rules differing at each institution.

Although universities set their own criteria, they must follow national guidelines. Students must be aged 16 or over and currently live in Scotland before they can apply, with their individual incomes assessed before an award is made.

NUS Scotland president Liam McCabe told The Scotsman: “With rising living costs, unaffordable rent prices and record levels of student debt, the number of students applying for last resort hardship funds is as unsurprising as it is concerning.

“What’s clear is that cost-of-living student support needs radical reform and NUS Scotland will continue to make the case for improved bursary support, especially for those from the poorest backgrounds.

“The Scottish Government has stated an ambition to move toward a system where every student receives support tied to the real living wage.

“While important first steps have been taken, we look forward to a clear plan to achieve this shared goal.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “The discretionary funds are an important source of support for students who find themselves in unexpected circumstances.

“We are, however, committed to further considering all non-core and discretionary support following a recommendation of the Student Support Review.”

CASE STUDY

Jamie was the first in his family to attend university when he began a degree in web design at one of Scotland’s newest universities.

While he went on to successfully complete his degree, at one stage in his second year he found himself in a financially precarious position.

“I hadn’t yet found a part-time job and my money was running out,” he said.

“One of my flatmates told me I should apply for a hardship grant. It made all the difference for me.”

Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) has among the highest number of applications for financial support from its students.

Kirsty MacInnes, head of student services at GCU, said discretionary funds were important as they provided the main opportunity for the majority of its students to get financial help.

She added: “We do have other scholarships, bursaries and grants available but these are targeted at specific student groups. Without the discretionary funds many of our students from disadvantaged backgrounds would struggle to manage financially.

“Our university has been very successful in opening up Higher Education to many students from a disadvantaged background and it is no surprise we are one of the largest providers of hardship grants through this fund.

“We have a range of support in place to help students maintain their studies.”