Nicola Sturgeon was quick to respond to the report of the Commission on Widening Access. Ms Sturgeon told young voters in Edinburgh that ‘…young people who have experience of care, and who meet the minimum entry standards, will be offered a place at university and, in addition to ensuring they have free tuition like all students, we will support them with a full bursary…’
The guarantee of a place at university is good news and it's no surprise that the announcement was warmly received. But a lot of work will be needed, no doubt involving some tough negotiations with universities, to realise these bold ambitions. The practicalities will be complicated by universities’ independence and because the undergraduate application process is part of the UK-wide UCAS system.
The proposal to provide a full bursary is very welcome because, along with free tuition, it helps to deal with the real problem of student debt after graduation. But it will not give additional money to students from low-income backgrounds when they need it most.
Currently students from the lowest income backgrounds are entitled to the maximum support, £7,625, made up of a non-refundable bursary of £1,875 and a student loan of £5,750. The maintenance loan element is repayable, but only after the end of the student’s course, and only once annual income reaches the threshold, currently £17,335.
The calculation of the amount required for maintenance still makes assumptions that parents will contribute to the income of their student children. But the extent to which parents actually make contributions varies greatly and students from non-traditional backgrounds are particularly disadvantaged by this assumption.
The 2011-12 Student Income and Expenditure Survey of almost 4,000 English-domiciled students found that students who received the most from families tended to be from more traditional backgrounds - they were younger, white, living away from home, from managerial or professional backgrounds, and single.
The cost of studying is likely to be considerably greater than £7,600 or so. The University of Edinburgh estimates that the monthly living cost for a student could be in the range £606-£1,230 - £7,272 and £14,760 annually. At the lower end the full bursary should just about cover outgoings, but these estimates don’t include additional costs of student life, such as gym membership, societies, field trips and travel costs, and they require a disciplined approach to budgeting. The amount allowed for book purchase seems very conservative. Also, as universities disinvest in student halls, increasingly to be replaced by halls operated by the private sector, the cost of student accommodation is increasing.
Many barriers come between students in the care system and the financial benefits to which they are entitled. I recently learned about a school pupil from a looked after background who accepted an unconditional offer of a place at a university in Scotland but found that a place in halls could only be confirmed on payment of a £300 deposit. The student does not have the money, the family can’t help, and the expense does not fit any budget in the local authority.
Many, perhaps most, students from looked after backgrounds do not have any realistic hope of financial support from family, except from their ‘corporate’ parents. And while employment helps to alleviate financial problems and can also provide opportunities to develop skills and improve employment prospects, it’s not the solution for everyone. The job market is precarious. I know a student who lost his job and the drop in income precipitated a spiral into debt.
Employment is a source of stress for many students. Employers are not always flexible in accommodating placements and examination timetables, and may change shift patterns, causing conflicts with university attendance. Work commitments can make it harder to take advantage of additional learning support, as well as engaging in the broader cultural and leisure aspects of university life.
The First Minister’s announcement was short on detail. It’s not clear, for example, whether students with care backgrounds will be allowed to apply for maintenance loans in addition to receiving the new maximum bursary.
Unless the overall value of the financial support provided to students from a looked after background while they are on course is increased substantially, I can’t see how these young people will be in a better position to take full advantage of all that being at university offers and to avoid dropping out as a result of lack of money.
The FM’s announcement has attracted attention around the world, generally impressing with its boldness. We have a chance to do something radical in Scotland which could help to roll back inequality. Let’s not squander the opportunity by under-resourcing and poor planning.