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Number of poorer students getting government grants falls

Photo: PA

There has been a further fall in the number of students from poorer households receiving grants from the Scottish government.

Poorer students also have higher loan burdens than their counterparts from better off families, figures out today show.

49,815
full-time students were given non-repayable bursaries and grants in 2015-16, according to statistics

They are the students who qualify because they come from low income households.

That's a drop of 4.8% on last year and a fall of 14.9% since 2006-07, the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) statistics show.

Credit: Student Awards Agency Scotland

The Scottish government today stressed the fact that the total paid out to these students is up to £66.1million from last year, a 4% rise.

But their own figures show the total paid out has gone down by 35.7% since 2006-07.

£1,330
is the average amount paid per student.

This average amount is up 9% on the year before, but down 24.4% since 2006-07.

All of this is happening at a time when the number of students based in Scotland - domiciled to use to official term - has gone up from 124,930 to 126,290.

So a smaller proportion of the total student numbers getting some form of financial help are getting the grants or bursaries.

The figures also show that the average amount of loan to students is higher for those from poorer households than it is for those from better off backgrounds.

Students whose family income is up to £16,999 have an average loan of £5,890 while those whose income is above £34,000 have an average loan of £4,650.

So far, so statistical. What matters is what these dry sounding figures tells us and the renewed political debate over social inclusion they have sparked.

Credit: PA

According to former Scottish government civil servant Lucy Hunter Blackburn they show "low income students have been falling as a proportion of students supported by SAAS."

The Scottish Tories say the figures show the average support per student has dropped from £1,850 to £1,330 over five years.

Conservative education spokesperson Liz Smith says:

“Bursaries are designed to help students get their foot in the door but this is becoming increasingly hard, and it’s those in our poorest communities who are missing out. “When free tuition fees have also shown to do nothing to help social mobility, the SNP needs to urgently rethink these cuts before inequality grows even further."

– Liz Smith, Conservative education spokesperson

And that is the nub of the issue. The Tories argue that 'free' tuition fees, brought in by the SNP under First Minister Alex Salmond, have actually not helped the less well off, as it was claimed they would.

It's no coincidence then that the Scottish government today announced the appointment of the independent chair of a review into the effectiveness of the student support system.

Jayne-Anne Gadhia, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Money, is charged with assessing "whether college and university students receive a fair and effective package of support, and make recommendations for improvement".

According to the Scottish government, the review’s remit will include exploring:

  • The most effective support for the poorest and most vulnerable students.
  • The balance of support available to those in further and higher education.
  • The current repayment threshold and period for student loan debt.
Credit: PA

However, there is no indication that the review will include the pledge of free tuition fees. Scottish government sources told me it will not be considered by the review.

Mr Salmond famously said: "The rocks would melt in the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students."

He liked it so much he even had it engraved on a piece of Elgin sandstone and placed at Heriot Watt university.

But Ms Blackburn, who is a researcher into student finances at Edinburgh University, says that the policy should be considered as part of the review.

She argues that these figures, and the statistics over the years, show the system is hitting students from poorer background harder than those from better off homes - the reverse of the intention of the policy.

Shirley-Anne Somerville, the minister for further education, higher education and science, said:

As part of our programme for government, we committed to reviewing student support to make sure the system is fair and effective."

– Shirley-Anne Somerville, Minister for further education, higher education and science

Ms Gadhia said:

"It is important to ensure the student support system is fit for purpose, fair and firmly focused on meeting the needs of all students in further and higher education, particularly the most vulnerable. "As such, I welcome the opportunity to undertake a comprehensive review of the current systems of student support in Scotland."

– Jayne-Anne Gadhia, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Money

And for those of you who like more figures, here are the key trends in student support:

Credit: Student Awards Agency Scotland

I've just interviewed Ms Somerville for tonight's Representing Border, and she confirmed that the policy of free tuition fees will not be included in the remit of the review.

So Mr Salmond's rocks will remain unmelted for now at least.

Ms Somerville told me:

I do not think that you would get anyone from within the student community who wants to saddle them with tens of thousands of pounds of debt.

"We're already seeing that down in England and seeing the implications of that, that will not be happening here in Scotland."

– Shirley-Anne Somerville, Minister for further education, higher education and science

Critics of Ms Somerville and her government would argue that a policy of making better off students pay something towards their fees would free up money to allow larger grants and bursaries for poorer students, not to saddle them with debt.

What then was her response to the figures released today by her own administration?

I put it to the minister that they showed that her government was failing the poorest students.

Ms Somerville replied that 126,000 full time students were receiving support from the government.

Furthermore, she argued that students were receiving the "highest average support per student" which was good news for those at University and college.

The minister also said that by increasing the income threshold for receiving a bursary from £17,000 to £19,000 allowed an extra 2,500 students to get funding.

Ms Somerville said that students now had "more money in their pockets" but she did not deny the fact, shown in today's figures, that that was largely through increased loans.

I also pressed the minister on the debt figures being higher for students on lower incomes, again from the official figures.

She replied:

We have the lowest student debate within Scotland, when we compared it to the rest of the UK, less than half of what's happening down in England."

– Shirley-Anne Somerville, Minister for further education, higher education and science