Free is not Cheaper…

…or why I want the Scottish Government to burden me with Student Debt.


As Nicola Sturgeon took over the reins of the SNP at the weekend, she declared that now they, and not the Labour Party, were the party of social justice in Scotland. In support of this, the abolition of tuition fees for Scottish Students in Scotland. The Labour Party opposed this, and so showed their true colours. They wanted students to pay their own fees, and so seemingly barred the poorest from enjoying Higher Education.

The logic of no Higher Education fees are obvious. No debt looming over them for the rest of their life. This in turn, would encourage more people from families with no University history (such as mine) into Higher Education, and so broaden their horizons. These people are then more likely to be able to fight their way out of poverty, driving up living standards. Everybody wins!
Or so it would seem , except that fees are just one aspect of the cost of university living. There are many other costs that must be paid to go to Uni. There’s travel expenses, for example, which can be expensive – but no support is specifically available for them. The same with rent, books and study materials (which if you are a law student can run into the £100s of pounds a semester) and other living expenses as they appear. The only support available to meet these for most students is a student loan of between £4,750 – £7,500 a year, depending on household income. For a student living away from home this is not a lot to go on, and for the poorest student – with perhaps little support available – this could be a greater disincentive than tuition fees.
What’s key to remember is that after a student graduates, debt is debt. Whether it comes from tuition fees or living expenses; is owed to the government or the bank; debt it debt. So a promise of “Free Tuition” is only good and useful for students from low-income backgrounds if it can be backed up with support for living costs – which it clearly does not.
What it does do, however, is offer an extraordinary level of support to those from wealthy households. Indeed, a February 2014 report by the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity stated that:

There is only one significant group for which it is clearly accurate to describe the Scottish system as the best in the UK, which is the most well off, provided they study in-country. [p.57]

This is a damning claim against the truism that Scotland’s University funding system is the “fairest” in the UK. But when you think about how are system works, it makes sense. By focusing on providing free tuition, everyone – low, medium and high income students get a £3,000 debt relief. But by abolishing grants and limiting the availability of bursaries, the free support once available to low-income students is reduced, leading to a reliance on loans – and thereby pushing up total debt levels upon graduation. The same report estimates that a low-income students will leave with c.£20,000 total debt; higher-income students having no debt at all. The system we have does not work.
Not only does it not work, but it doesn’t work at great cost. Since 2011 Scottish colleges have faced unprecedented cuts, with over 100,000 students disappearing, along with 7,000 staff. Colleges are another route to extended education, most often used by those from low-income backgrounds or with no family history of higher education. Therefore, the Scottish Government have been funding £0-debt-graduations for rich students by cutting services most often used by lower-income families. Not progressive at all.
Similarly, postgraduate students have also suffered. Turning to what I know, the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (a compulsory qualification for solicitors) used to be funded. But now, where grants once stood, student loans for only half of the cost have appeared. This means that any aspiring lawyer of tomorrow has to find c.£3,000 to fund their Diploma from other means. And, to put it bluntly, it’s more likely that the daughter of a lawyer will be able to ask their parents for the money than the son of a shop-worker. The effect this is having on those from “less privileged backgrounds” entering into the profession is already being noticed, and it is not a small one. The same issues apply to almost all aspects of postgraduate education i.e. the only method of funding is a loan, which does nothing to remove the overall debt burden at the end of Uni life. If social mobility is the aim, it is a long way off being achieved. In the end, the tuition fees of rich student’s undergraduate degree are being paid by the grants funding once given to postgraduate students from low-income backgrounds. The system is simultaneously on and off its head.

So, how do we solve this? One way would be to make that ever popular political decision that we should raise taxes. This would mitigate the effects of cuts to college places as much as is possible, and with new tax powers coming to Holyrood next year, it’s a possibility. However, it’s unlikely the ‘progressive’ SNP would raise taxes, especially given the 9 year long Council Tax freeze Scotland will have experienced by the time of the 2016 election.
The only other option is to accept that rocks will have to melt in the sun and some level of tuition fee is introduced in Scotland. This initially seems unattractive, but considering the case above, it is clear that the “no tuition fees for anyone” approach is not working. Introducing fees (that aren’t paid up-front) would allow money currently funding richer students’ undergraduate degrees to support more students from lower-income backgrounds, in the form of bursaries and grants that will actually reduce the overall debt level upon graduation. Support can be kept in place to meet tuition fee costs for less-privileged students, but by having those that can support themselves do so, we would be able to offer even more funding to those who don’t have that luxury, ensuring that they have a genuinely improved access to higher and further education. And, even better, it would tackle final levels of graduate debt, by replacing loans with grants.
Free Higher Education is a admirable aim. But it requires funding, and this isn’t in place – and doesn’t seem that it will any time soon. So we need to look at the reality of the situation, and while “Free Higher Education” is a brilliant headline, it masks that reality. It masks the cuts to further education that have been made to fund the policy. It hides the reduction in postgraduate support that has occurred, while undergraduate tuition fees are still paid for all. And, most importantly, it ignores the fact the grants once available for living costs and travel expenses are now replaced by loans, meaning that lower-income students are now getting in to debt just studying for their “free degree”, while their richer friends can rely on their parents helping them out. So, what I’m really saying here is, Nicola Sturgeon, GIVE ME MORE DEBT because I currently live at home and while my family are by no means rich, we’re not poor. All going well – I’ll be able to repay you in 20/30 years time. Others aren’t like me and we should be doing more for them. That’s what “progressive” is all about.

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