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Can Scotland afford to be brave with student support and fees?

Testing the New Model Scottish Army uniform at the Edinburgh Festival.
The support for students in Scotland is diverging far from that in England and this could be seen as a threat to the UK government and its political objectives.
The independent report for the Scottish Government: “A New Social Contract for Students - Fairness, Parity and Clarity”(1), out this week just before the budget, is welcome because it sets out the basic needs of an individual student. It makes no distinction with regard to support for the individual between Higher and Further Education. It also goes some way to seeking equality by defining a basic economic requirement for all students regardless of their background. Rich or poor we are all Homo sapiens with generally the same nutritional needs.  Even with some flawed assumptions apparent, it sets out a 'line in the sand' with regard to providing equal time and resources for students studying.  Students in the rest of the UK will take note of this when they vote.

The proposal assumes no fees and amounts to at least £8,100 per academic year; based upon 36 weeks studying at a nominal 25 hours per week and being paid a living wage. The assumption is that studying for only 25 hours per week is normal for students. This does not reflect accepted survey data that shows different courses have different study time demands (2) or that the students who attain high levels do so by working many more hours.

The figures align broadly with the advice that universities such as Edinburgh recommend to visiting students who live independently that covers the very basic requirements to study (3). The report expects students to receive this funding through a mixture of grants and loans depending upon their family circumstances.

A common assumption in all such reports is that families will always support their children in education as young adults. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Especially where the family income is low in the first place and there are siblings who also need support.

Another assumption is that students who do not receive support from their families can work 10 hours per week at the living wage to make up the working week to 35 hours. This assumption is based upon a recommendation 7 of the Cubie report of 1999, where there is little evidence to back up this claim (4). It stated that: “We commend a term-time maximum of about ten hours paid employment a week as a reasonable balance between the need or wish of students to supplement their basic income and the interests of their studies”. Many will seek to work for longer to reduce long-term debt or burden on their families. Higher and Further education presents a bigger challenge to these students and they must be forgiven for hesitating to take part. The alternative of full employment at a lower pay rate is attractive in such circumstances. 

Students from lower income families are expected to climb the social ladder without the safety net of family support or substantial capital in the family to inherit in the long run. Better off students can be more confident and take a risk when they have a safety net in place.

(4)  The Cubie Report, Student Finance Fairness for the Future, Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance, 1999

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