More cash for Scottish students, but fewer of them get it

Students from Scotland are to get an 11 per cent uplift on their maintenance package - taking the total in bursary and loans for students from the lowest income backgrounds to £9,000.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

NUS Scotland is pleased. Its President Ellie Gomersall said:

I am extremely pleased to welcome this uplift in student support, particularly as it is above inflation and will be delivered as a bursary for all care experienced students. Though we would have preferred to see all students receive this money through bursaries rather than loans, any increase in the amount of money in students’ pockets is more than welcome.

As Ellie notes, Higher and Further Education Minister Jamie Hepburn also announced that the annual non-repayable Care Experienced Bursary for eligible higher education students will also increase to £9,000.

It’s been a long time coming, this – we got Northern Ireland’s news back in October, and England and Wales followed in January.

The max grant+loan “pounds in your pocket” rates as of September (away from home, not in London) will compare like this – and remember this is about where undergrads are from, not where they end up:

  • England: £9,978
  • Wales: £11,720
  • Northern Ireland: £8,136
  • Scotland: £9,000

Of course the above hides all sorts of complexity – lower rates for living at home (and higher rates for studying in London) outside of Scotland, different repayment arrangements, differing mixes of grant and loan, and crucially different ways of deducting down from these maximums.

The press release is light of detail, but as such I think it’s probably safe to assume that Scotland (like NI and England) will leave the parental income threshold for the maximum where it has been for a long time and is now at £20,999.

As we’ve said before here while inflation is high, wages are rising too albeit not as fast – yanking significant percentages of students out of entitlement for the maximum, which may well be paying for the increase for all I know.

It’s like announcing an extra carrot on the plate of a free school meal, paid for by a whole bunch of families being told “no more free school meals for you”. Only in this case, it’s more like “you can maintain the number of carrots – but we’re paying for that by fewer of you getting a meal”.

I say all of this because these announcements – and this is true for all four nations – never seem to come with any analysis on the numbers of students entitled to the maximum or indeed a total cost for the package. It’s not on really.

Hepburn’s quote says that the uplift is the “next step” in delivering the Scottish Government’s commitment to provide a total package of student support equivalent to the living wage – a recommendation that was in Scotland’s independent review of student finance back in 2017 and was re-committed to in the SNP manifesto of 2021:

We will expand our total student support package to reach the equivalent of the living wage over the next three years.

That anchoring in the Living Wage rate for the time students spend studying would shake out like this today:

  • Living Wage: £10.90 per hour
  • Notional hours of study per week: 25 hours
  • Weeks per academic session: 38 weeks
  • £8.45 x 25 hours x 38 weeks = £10,355

So students from families on the lowest incomes, that’s a shortfall against the policy ambition of £1,355, or expressed another way, the max is 86 per cent of where it should be – the gap was £1,305 last year, which is pretty much the same proportion of gap.

No announcement on postgraduate funding – the SNP manifesto committed to a review of funding in this area, but no sign of that either.

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