Writing in this blog in 2016, I welcomed the First Minister’s announcement that care experienced young people at university would have a full bursary in future.
I also expressed my concern that the amount on offer - £7,625 - was insufficient to cover the real cost of living at university. I might have added that care experienced students at college were likely to be in an even more precarious financial position.
For the past 12 months, the Student Support Review Board, appointed by the Minister for Further and Higher Education and Science and chaired by Jane-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, has deliberated on the question of how to ensure that students have a fair standard of living, and the various options for funding student support.
In the Review Board’s report published on 20 November, there is explicit recognition of the particular support needs of students from care backgrounds. As well as parity of treatment of students on further education and higher education courses, the Board supported the principle of providing full bursaries for care experienced students.
‘The New Social Contract and Minimum Student Income should be extended to Care Experienced students, based on the Scottish Government’s current policy of providing full non-repayable bursaries.’
The review of student support was concerned with the cost of living for all students, but the Review Board wanted to understand, in particular, the circumstances of students from lower income backgrounds who, their report notes, ‘graduate with the highest levels of student loan debt.’
Ms Gadhia in her introduction to the report writes,
‘Better financial support would encourage students from all backgrounds to enter further and higher education, with confidence and clarity about their entitlement to funding.’
The report, subtitled ‘Fairness, Parity and Clarity’, makes a number of significant recommendations.
The Review Board identified three funding options to improve financial support for students, with associated costs. They estimated achieving complete parity between further education and higher education, with an equal division between bursary and loan, would cost the public purse an additional £123m a year. Noting that this option was the preference of NUS and UNISON, the Board nevertheless recommended that Scottish Government – which had made clear that recommendations had to take account of constraints on public finances - should adopt a ‘hybrid’ approach at an estimated additional cost of £16m per year.
This model, the Board says, would ‘make an equal and meaningful improvement in funding to students across further and higher education.’
They propose ‘an equal split of bursaries and loans for the poorest students in further education to support the introduction of student loans.’ They did however propose that there should be harmonisation between the sectors over time.
The review commissioned a survey of students conducted by YouGov during February and March 2017, and held a public consultation in July and August 2017. CELCIS responded as one of 11 ‘inclusion groups and organisations’.
Among the survey respondents, 4% were care experienced, while 14% had caring responsibilities, and 21% had a disability. Four in 10 students said financial support was poor or very poor in meeting their needs, 27% of lowest income students did not have the right information to help them apply for financial support, and 14% said they topped up finances with credit cards or other types of (high interest) loans. Only 54% of students who claim financial support said the process was straightforward.
Among the suggestions made by respondents for making improvements to student support funding include:
Many said that a complex application process for funding could deter potential students and make it difficult to access or stay in university and college, and there was concern expressed about the 100% attendance rule for further education students, especially for students with children.
First, if the Scottish Government accepts the recommendation to peg the minimum student income to the living wage, the non-repayable bursary will increase from its current £7,625 to £8,100. Although a significant percentage increase, it will still only put another £40 a month in the pockets of students and those without additional supports, for example, from local authorities.
The Board recognised the importance of non-core and discretionary funding for students with no family support and from disadvantaged backgrounds, but said that in future:
‘such funds will require management from a central source of funding to make the availability of these funds more consistent. And they should be distributed under national guidelines but administered locally.’
One of the non-core funds available to care experienced students is the ‘vacation grant for care leavers’, renamed as the ‘accommodation grant for care experienced students’. This has so far been available only to higher education students. The table of non-core and discretionary support on p42 of the Review Board’s report shows zero spend in this budget head, with no explanation given. If this is not an error, possible explanations are that there was no spend, which seems unlikely, or that expenditure was so little that it does not register in a table expressed in £ millions.
Second, if Scottish Government accepts the recommendation of the Review Board, an entitlement to funding at the level of the living wage of £8,100 will extend to students in further education. This is important because of the significance of further education to many care experienced students, whether progressing from school, as a means of returning to education as an adult, and as a progression route to a degree. The Review Board also recommended common administration of student support in further and higher education to provide consistency, and harmonisation of the attendance rules between the sectors, since they regarded the 100% attendance rule in further education as unfair.
Third, the Review Board considered the interaction between student income and benefits, which under current arrangements, means that student support entitlement counts as income, even where a student loan is not actually taken in full or part, and there is a reduction in benefit entitlement, pound for pound. This is different to the arrangements in the rest of the UK and so the Review Board recommended that for students receiving benefits, entitlement to bursaries should be replaced by a ‘special support payment’ and a ‘maintenance award’, which when supplemented by social security payments would add up to at least the level of the Minimum Student Income of £8,100.
Finally, there are aspects of student funding which were outside the remit of the Review Board but which are particularly important to students from care experienced backgrounds and which will therefore need to be kept on the agenda. These include bursaries for nursing and midwifery students (currently lower than the care experienced student bursary), funding for postgraduate study, support for care experienced students aged 26 and over, and the complex and uneven landscape of additional scholarship funding from universities and trusts.