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How do Scotland’s students manage their money?

With reliable data on the Scottish student experience so hard to come by, Lucy Hunter Blackburn discovers illumination hidden in a DfE publication.
This article is more than 5 years old

Lucy Hunter Blackburn is a Contributing Editor at Wonkhe and currently an ESRC-funded postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, and former Head of Higher Education in the Scottish Government.

There is an absence of reliable quantitative data on how Scottish students in higher education manage their money and what they think about it.

Last November the Scottish Government’s student support review, which is still due an official response, included the results of a large online poll: but with no control over the sampling, and no separation of the results between the entire range of further and higher education, the results are of limited use.

Help from Westminster?

A partial solution to Scotland’s low-information problem has now arrived from an unexpected source: the UK government. The publication in March of the English Student Income Expenditure Survey for 2014-15, several months after the Welsh version, was a depressing reminder of how out of date is the last such survey undertaken north of the border, in 2004-05. Yet alongside the SIES there was a more cheering surprise: the government published simultaneously the Influence of financial factors on higher education decision-making which included, near-miraculously for someone like me, a Scottish comparative sample.

The research compares the expectations and experiences of university applicants and first-year students in England, based on a total structured sample of 3,000. It asks how funding affected their choices, and explores attitudes towards different aspects of student finance. It probes how decisions to enter higher education might have been different if various types of support were no longer available. There is a lot here for researchers in England to rummage in.

The comparative Scottish data is much more limited, occupying one short section, but up here on the northern data tundra, we have to work with what we get. The Scottish-domiciled sample consists of 190 university applicants and 153 students studying in Scotland. The authors rightly warn that the margin of error is therefore much higher than for the English sample: only very big differences between applicants and students, and between English and Scottish students, show up as statistically significant. It is a large limitation, but not fatal.


The headline comparative finding is probably that students here are less likely than those in England to say they “nearly didn’t” apply or go because of worries about debt, and less likely to say they were “put off” applying a little or a lot by the cost of study (but did still apply). The report’s suggestion that this reflects the absence of fee debt here is hard to disagree with. Yet the figures do not suggest students functioning in entirely different financial worlds: 19% “nearly didn’t” apply in Scotland because they were worried about debt, compared to 24% in England. The gap in those who were “put off” applying “a little or a lot” by costs (but still did) is larger: just under a third in Scotland, just over half in England. Consistent with Sarah Minty’s earlier qualitative comparative study of students in Scotland and the north of England, Scots felt somewhat less well informed about funding and were more debt averse.

Much more could be said here about the cross-national comparisons. Yet it is so rare to have a picture of Scottish students in their own right, that the Scottish results in isolation also deserve attention.

For example, there was a clear mismatch between how much applicants expected paid employment to be a “main source” of income and actual experience in the student group.  

While 71% applicants expected vacation income to be a main source, only 53% of students reported it as such. Similarly, applicants were much more likely to expect to depend on term-time employment (63% compared to 31% of students in practice). 

The difference is statistically significant in both cases. Is the gap because work was harder to get, less well-paid or more incompatible with study, than applicants expected, or did they just needed the extra money less than they predicted? What are the characteristics of the substantial minority who are working in term time? Wouldn’t it be good to know?

Expectations related to loans appear more accurate. Two-thirds of applicants thought they would take out a student loan and a similar proportion of students actually did so. This is a change from Minty’s findings in 2014, when most potential entrants interviewed expected to be debt-free, at odds with the 70% or so take-up of loans visible in the national statistics at the time. Perhaps increased media interest in student debt in Scotland in recent years has helped?

Accommodation and access

We do not know how important additional support is from universities in Scotland, not just as hardship funds, but through extra bursaries, especially for those from lower incomes. Almost half the total group receiving or expecting a full bursary thought they would receive some such help. But we cannot tell how close expectation and reality were, and how far this support was available across the system or concentrated in certain institutions.

There are some surprising findings on accommodation. While 61% of applicants expected to spend the first year in halls, only 40% of students actually did. The reality was not, as might be expected, much more living at home (30% did so, only slightly more than expected to), but far more use of private lets (16% in practice, as against 3% expecting to do so) and in property owned by the family, but not the parental home. The small sample may be having effects here, but at first sight, applicants do not look well-informed about their housing options.

The hypothetical questions are probably least useful. Asked about switching bursary to loan, 6% to 8% (depending on bursary level) of those on a bursary thought they would not have applied, although it is difficult to know how much reliance to place on that. Those from families with working-class occupations and even more so those on a full bursary were significantly and substantially more likely than others to say lost bursary would be replaced by working more both in the holidays and during term time. Other sources (parents, university funds, overdrafts) were less commonly cited. In 2013, the Scottish Government actually did cut bursaries substantially. 

The aggregate national data suggest that in practice around three-quarters of those affected dealt with this by taking out an extra loan. However, around one-quarter of those on Young Student Bursary appear to be non-borrowers. These figures suggest that a common reaction to the grant cut in that group may have been to increase paid employment.

These figures offer a small, smudged window on the financial reality facing Scottish university students. They tell us nothing about those on shorter HE courses in colleges, or part-timers. The small sample prevents headline figures being broken down further. They are fascinating but frustrating and something along the lines of the SIES is well overdue. Meantime, crumbs from the UK research table will have to do, however eccentric that feels as a way to build an evidence base.

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