Free higher education in Scotland has never failed to make me feel patriotic.
As a Scot, I consider myself lucky to have avoided the £9,250 annual tuition fees that were introduced in England some years before I enrolled as an undergraduate.
Finding myself as a student again — this time in England as a trainee reporter at the Financial Times — my southern classmates have commented on how good it must feel being debt-free. I have had to correct them on this point. I still owe a hefty sum to the Student Loans Company — just not as much.
Looking at fees in isolation paints a deceiving picture of Scottish students’ finances. According to the Student Awards Agency for Scotland, students borrowed £534m in maintenance loans to cover day-to-day living costs in 2018/2019 — an average of £5,300 per Scottish student.
With Scottish degrees lasting four years, this would leave the average student with debts of £21,200 (plus interest) at graduation.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says these numbers “pour a barrel of cold water on the idea that higher education in Scotland is free and works for all.”
True, this is a lot less than the average debt of £50,000 that English graduates face, according to calculations by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2017.
But aside from the grim reality of £9,250 fees, one of the most interesting differences is how maintenance loans are treated.
The maximum annual maintenance loan available in Scotland is £5,750. If your household income is over £34,000, it is capped at £4,750. There is no differentiation made for those living at home or away.
In England, the maximum amount the poorest students can borrow is much higher.
Students with a household income of £25,000 or less can borrow a maximum of £7,529 if they are living at home, £8,944 if they are living away and £11,672 if they’re living in London.
These thresholds reduce the more your parents earn, but even the richest English students living away can borrow £4,168 per year, rising to £5,812 in the capital. In both England and Scotland, an ‘implied parental contribution’ is expected to plug the gap.
So how does the cost of living compare to the level of maintenance available? London aside, the cost of renting in university towns and cities across England is not massively different from Scottish ones.
Students in St Andrews, where I studied, face average rents of £527 per month, and those in Edinburgh pay £519, according to the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Student Living Index.
This is not much less than the monthly cost of renting in Brighton (£570), Oxford (£545) or Cambridge (£535), begging the question of how the poorest Scottish students can be expected to cover rent and living expenses on the maximum maintenance loan of £5,750.
Even grants and bursaries will not plug the gap.
Lucy Hunter Blackburn, a researcher on student funding at the University of Edinburgh and a former senior civil servant, says: “Grants in Scotland are very low in two ways: in its absolute amount, and low in how quickly it falls away to nothing at [a household income of] £34,000.”
Scottish students with a household income below this can be awarded between £500-£2,000 per year, and may also be able to apply for additional bursaries from their university.
But taking all of this into consideration, I am not surprised that Scottish students are more likely to live at home while studying.
Just over a third (35 per cent) of Scottish students do so, compared to 23 per cent for the UK as a whole according to a Sutton Trust report.
I went to a state secondary school in Glasgow, but I was one of the only students in my year who moved away for university. The majority of my school friends stayed with their parents. With a number of good universities a commutable distance from Glasgow, they were able to study, take on a part-time job and take out a maintenance loan.
Even if they gave their parents some kind of rental contribution, many were comfortably off and could even afford to run a car to drive in to university every day.
Moving away for university meant I had to manage my finances much more carefully, but I don’t regret my decision.
Studying at the University of St Andrews opened up my world; I had to live independently, make new friends and encountered all kinds of people from outside of my usual social background.
Moving away has long been an escalator for social mobility. If I had not been one of the few who did so, I doubt I would have had the confidence to apply for a course in London.
The maintenance loan disparity makes it harder for Scottish students to contemplate moving away, but the tuition fee disparity means many are unlikely to venture beyond Scotland.
Ms Hunter Blackburn says she is “absolutely sure that there are some young people who are discounting going south of the border to study because of the narrative behind fee debt.”
Both systems should perhaps look towards Wales, which introduced the UK’s most generous financial support package in 2018.
Every student, regardless of household income, gets £1,000 per year as a maintenance grant.
In addition, annual maintenance is set at £6,885 for home students, £8,100 for those living away, and £10,124 for Welsh students living in London with the threshold household income of £45,000 deciding whether this is made up of mainly grants or loans.
What the popularity of the Welsh system tells us is that policymakers should be focusing more on living costs, as well as making it clearer for students — and their parents — to know exactly how much a university education will cost them wherever they choose to study.
Katharine Gemmell is an NCTJ trainee reporter interning at the FT. Twitter: @KathGemm
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