Who has the fairest student support system in the UK?

The usual thing that I do when thinking about undergraduate student maintenance support is to look at the maximum amount available in grants and loans to students from the poorest backgrounds.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

So, for example, if we also use a student living away from home and outside London, the headline maximums this academic year are as follows:

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

As ever, 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, how old you are and extra bits and bobs depending on care experience, parental status, disability and so on.

I’ll also often note that those are maximums that start to reduce once a student’s family is earning over a certain amount – thresholds which in all three cases haven’t been uprated for many years:

  • Wales: (no threshold, all students can apply for the relevant max)
  • England: £25,000
  • Scotland: £20,999
  • Northern Ireland: £19,203

It’s that taper – and the growth in household earnings (albeit one that isn’t growing as fast as inflation) that results in the proportion of English domiciled students studying outside London who receive the maximum student loan fell from 57 per cent in 2012-13 to 38 per cent in 2021-22.

To be fair, what I rarely do is look at the way those maximums taper down and reduce to minimums once the family income is over those thresholds – the thing we used to call the parental contribution. And the results are… interesting.

There are various ways to do this. For example, in the financial year ending 2022, median household income in the UK before taxes and benefits was £35,000. For a young student (again, away from home and outside of London) that would result in basic grant and/or loan entitlements as follows:

  • Wales: £11,720
  • England: £8,552
  • Northern Ireland: £6,776
  • Scotland: £6,000

What’s fascinating is the way in which things change once family earnings creep up beyond that UK average. So for example a family on £50k with a student in the same study circumstances, the entitlements change as follows – with Scotland suddenly beating the Northern Ireland offer:

  • Wales: £11,720
  • England: £6,412
  • Scotland: £6,000
  • Northern Ireland: £5,530

Once the family’s on £55k, England’s edge gives away quite significantly:

  • Wales: £11,720
  • Scotland: £6,000
  • England: £5,669
  • Northern Ireland: £5,084

And then once we get to £60k household income, the shift gets even more pronounced:

  • Wales: £11,720
  • Scotland: £6,000
  • Northern Ireland: £5,084
  • England: £4,986

Above, we’re at the minimums that students can claim there everywhere but England – where the lowest figure, which kicks in at a family income of over £70,040, is £4,651 – just 40 per cent of the amount a student from Wales can pull down.

These arrangements are all devolved, of course – and so as well as political priorities dictating the overall envelopes, you’d want to do some analysis of both household incomes by nation and who is and isn’t currently participating in each category to undertake an analysis of which system is “fairer”.

Wales is most generous however you look at it, and none of these numbers feel like enough or are growing at the pace they should given rent growth. But other than in Wales, what’s undeniable is the extent to which the devolved nations have found a way to keep the middle classes comparatively sweeter than the Conservatives have in England:

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As well as looking at household income distribution, you’d really need a contemporary look at costs – but as we know, both the Department for Education and the Welsh Government seem to be sitting on their hands and pretending they didn’t commission the Student Income and Expenditure Survey in 2020.

And as for the justifications for the amount in reduction for living at home and the increase for living in London that apply everywhere but for students from Scotland, the justification is now so old that it’s lost in the annals of time. Augar ignored it (not that that would have made a difference), and Wales’ Diamond review didn’t address it either – and even that’s eight years old now.

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