Scottish students get an uplift on maintenance. But the devil’s in the detail

The Scottish Government has announced that it is increasing financial support for Scottish students - piling the pressure onto England to match the deal.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Early this morning with no warning, a press release appeared on the Scottish Government’s website proclaiming that the “main undergraduate funding package” is to be increased “in line with the Living Wage”.

Getting the main student finance package up to the “anchor” of the Living Wage over the duration of the Parliament was a manifesto commitment that was originally recommended in its student support review back in Autumn 2017.

The idea was that you took the Scottish Government’s Living Wage (back then £8.45 per hour), multiplied that by a “notional” 25 hours a week of study, then multiplied that by 38 weeks.

The “notional” 25 hours a week was always interesting – Wales uses 37.5 hours per week for 30 weeks per year to get to 1125 – the Scottish confection only amounted to 950 hours a year. The credit system definitely suggests that students should be studying harder (or at least for more hours) than that.

Nevertheless, that was the SNP manifesto commitment. A largish increase to the main package last year actually didn’t get the government much closer – because wages have been growing too. But the commitment was still there.

So today’s announcement gets there:

Scottish students will benefit from a £2,400 increase to their annual support package from the start of the 2024-25 academic year in line with the student equivalent Living Wage.

It is indeed the case that the “Real” Living Wage will be £12 a year next year – and when you multiply that by the 25 and the 38, that gets to the press release figure of £11,400 – although because of the differences in the underpinning calc, it won’t quite be what we assume will be £12,555 in Wales.

To deliver it they’ve introduced a “special support loan” component. In Wales and Northern Ireland the “special support” bit is for students who claim certain income-related benefits and is intended to help with costs such as books, course equipment and travel. The entitlement looks like this:

  • you’re a single parent or a single foster parent, with a child or young person aged under 20 who is in full-time education below higher education level
  • your partner is also a student and one or both of you are responsible for a child, or a young person under 20 who is in full-time education below higher education level
  • you have a disability and qualify for the Disability Premium or Severe Disability Premium
  • you’re deaf and qualify for Disabled Students’ Allowance
  • you have been treated as incapable of work for at least 28 weeks
  • you have a disability and qualify for income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • you’re eligible for Housing Benefit
  • you’re eligible for Housing element of Universal Credit
  • you’re entitled to Personal Independence Payment (PIP)
  • you’re entitled to Armed Forces Independence Payment (AFIP)
  • you’re entitled to Disability Living Allowance (DLA)
  • you’re waiting to go back to a course having taken agreed time out from that course due to an illness or caring responsibility that has now ended
  • you’re aged 60 or older

Because it’s targeted to this small group for travel, general study and childcare costs, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) doesn’t take it into account when assessing benefit entitlements. This ensures that students who remain entitled to welfare benefits whilst they study can access the additional support without any further reduction in their benefit entitlement. In England it’s only available for over 60s – pretty much all they can get.

What’s fascinating is that Scotland is making it available for all (full-time) students – so it’s a boost for those on benefits and a boost for everyone else too.

The problem is that in the rest of the UK, it’s a top up over and above the main package that can be more than the DWP would otherwise reduce benefits over – and it’s £5,161 in Wales, in NI £3,475 and up to £4,221 for over 60s in England. So even considered on its own, it’s significantly less generous for the most vulnerable than elsewhere.

The postgraduate loan, by the way, is also getting the £2,400 top up – but will still languish at £13,900 – some distance from what PGs need for both fees and living costs. And unlike in the rest of the UK, there’s still no uplift for Scottish students that might want to study in London.

Part-time? Sadly not. The Scottish Government reminded us that there is currently no maintenance support on offer to part-time students studying in Scotland. And as the eligibility criteria remains the same for the additional Special Support loan and the purpose remains for overall maintenance, this will therefore not extend to part-time or distance learning students at this stage.

It was though keen to point out that as part of the Programme for Government 2023/24, the Scottish Government has committed to improving the parity of living cost support on offer for those wishing to study part-time or flexibly. This position will therefore be considered for future academic years.

So ignore the family income threshold issues buried in the detail and the lack of help for part time and distance learners, and this is a pretty major uplift. If England goes ahead with what’s set to be a 2.5 per cent increase next year it will leave its poorest students much worse off.

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