The cost of being free

The latest SAAS scandal is a timely reminder of the true cost of education in Scotland

by Nov 19, 2012 No Comments

Ever since the SNP abolished the graduate endowment shortly after coming to power in 2007, education has been one of the main issues used to differentiate the Nationalists from their political opponents. With the independence referendum approaching, Scottish Labour questioning the value of free tuition for all, and the introduction of free schools and higher tuition fees in England, the value of education is being seen as a wedge to drive between the SNP and its opponents, and between Scotland and the rest of the UK. “They are the enemies of universal free education,” said Education Secretary Michael Russell of his opponents in his conference address in October, “universal free education that was born here in Scotland. And we have the proof of how wrong that Labour, Tory approach is. 25, 000 proofs in fact. That is the fall in numbers south of the border after the introduction of disastrous tuition fees.”

The problems at the Students Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) have shattered the illusion of “the principle of free education” – for the user, going to college or university is anything but free. In October, weeks after the start of the new term, it was revealed that a backlog of roughly 10,000 financial support applications had built up. The Scottish Government said the “vast majority” of these had been received in September and October. Extra staff were drafted in to the SAAS to extend opening hours, and a review was announced at the start of November to look at what caused the problems. “It is important that any further improvements are identified, especially for the late and complex applications which offer particular challenges,” said Russell.

The volume of correspondence that SAAS has had to deal with demonstrates that for many students, the funding they receive is a necessity. At the peak of this year’s chaos, the organisation was getting up to 1,000 calls, over 100 Facebook comments, and hundreds of Twitter mentions every day. As Holyrood went to press, SAAS was claiming that the backlog in applications was effectively cleared, with less than 100 outstanding; however, the backlog in correspondence was still enormous, with some emails and letters from August only now being dealt with.

The remit of the review that will be led by David Wallace, Student Loans Company deputy chief executive, is limited to “late and complicated” applications, and why it takes so long for them to be dealt with. NUS Scotland president Robin Parker takes issue with this distinction in principle, saying that students who secure their place at university through clearing, or who change course or institution, shouldn’t be considered ‘late’ – in many cases, they are applying as soon as they know they have a place to study. Labour shadow education spokesman Hugh Henry also has concerns about the exercise. “We know there are other problems. It’s not just about late inquiries,” he says. Henry also questions the independence of the Wallace inquiry. “He’s hardly going to be rigorous and robust in identifying problems,’ he asserts.

SAAS and the Scottish Government claimed that the backlog was down to “late and complicated” applications, with all those applying before the ‘guarantee date’ of 30 June having their funding in place before the start of term. On 31 October, a spokesman was quoted as saying: “SAAS are committed to ensuring students get the help they need and 100 per cent of applications received before the deadline on 30 June were processed before the student’s course began.” However, Holyrood has learned that in some cases, applications made before the 30 June deadline have not yet been processed, with some students still waiting for funds almost five months later. Cases where ‘additional information’ was requested after the initial application have meant that students who applied in August or September have, in some cases, received funding before peers who applied two months earlier. Applicants have found that correspondence, including the additional information requested, has effectively been added to the backlog of other mail, rendering the timeliness of their applications pointless.

One college student who spoke to Holyrood claimed that she had sent the same information to SAAS seven times, without any positive response. As of last week, she was still waiting for her funding despite initially applying before 30 June, and was considering dropping out of her course as she was unable to meet her living costs.

She said: “What I find difficult to understand is how they think it is fair to prioritise applications that have come in today, and there are people who have applied before the guarantee date that are just waiting for their mail to be looked at.” A fellow student, who had also applied before the 30 June deadline, had already abandoned her course.

Altogether, Holyrood has identified at least 30 cases where students had applied before the 30 June deadline, but either only received their funding after the start of their course, or were still waiting.

Holyrood also heard allegations of problems with the way SAAS functions that are beyond the speed with which it deals with applications.

One student said that despite having received a funding letter, and a payment plan indicating the dates on which she would receive payment, no money has arrived as promised. Several students were repeatedly asked for the same piece of additional information, or had the same form returned to them several times, with a different ‘error’ highlighted each time.

Perversely, one student told Holyrood despite telling SAAS he had transferred to a nonfunded masters course, he had continued receiving money he would have to pay back.

An added frustration for students is that the lack of an award letter from SAAS often inhibits them from claiming any further discretionary or hardship funding from their institution. “We wanted to claim discretionary funds for childcare from the university my wife is going to, which we’d been told by them would be no problem, but we can’t do anything until we get an award letter,” said one student, who is married with three children. “We’re not getting money from SAAS, so we need money, but we can’t get any money. We’re eating into our savings every month.” Those students who were able to access their funding without difficulty will still have to manage with what Parker calls “one of the worse [funding] packages in the UK”.

The financial problems faced by students in Scotland were set out in detail in the 2010 NUS Scotland report, ‘Still in the Red’, which was based on a survey of over 7,400 students at 37 further and higher education institutions, including undergraduates and postgraduates, part-time students, and over 1,200 student parents. Only one third of students felt they had sufficient money to concentrate fully on their studies; 28 per cent said they worried “all the time”. Parker points out a number of gaps in the current system; for instance, articulating college students are required to pay council tax in the summer, while many further education students can’t be sure of the level of support that they’ll receive when they start their course because of a “postcode lottery” in college support. Half of all the students surveyed in ‘Still in the Red’ said they found coping financially over the summer “particularly difficult”.

The impact for students who struggle financially is potentially wide-ranging. Sixtytwo per cent said that lack of sufficient financial support was impacting their studies. Half of students surveyed said they’d been forced to access commercial credit, which can include overdrafts with punishing penalty charges, or payday lenders charging astronomical interest rates. Sixty-eight per cent of students said they worked more than the 10 hours per week recommended by the 1999 Cubie Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance, with almost half saying part-time work was detracting from their studies. “Even if you don’t have the costs of tuition, you still have to pay your rent, you still have to pay your supermarket bills, you still have to get to college or university, buy textbooks,” says Parker.

For some students, financial pressures mean that being a student becomes untenable altogether. Scotland has the worst drop-out rate of any part of the UK, and a lack of financial support plays a significant part in fuelling that. One third of students surveyed said they knew of someone who had dropped out of their studies because of financial difficulties, with roughly the same proportion saying they’d considered doing so themselves. Almost nine out of ten students who had thought about dropping out said that financial concerns were at the heart of their considerations. Those students were also more likely to be from non-traditional socio-economic backgrounds, meaning that Scotland’s poor record in widening access stems not just from academic selection policies but from an insufficient financial safety net. It’s difficult to find students who have dropped out, but we know that lots of people are being pushed towards dropping out by their financial circumstances and living costs,” says Parker.

At a Universities Scotland fringe event during the autumn SNP conference in Perth, two former St Andrews University students, now acting as widening access ambassadors, spoke of their own challenges, coming from nontraditional backgrounds to secure degrees. Both had felt the need to move back home at some point in their studies, in part to reduce cost – thankfully, both lived close enough to make the commute manageable, if inconvenient.

Not all students from less well-off backgrounds have that opportunity, and the cost of accommodation is frequently cited as a barrier to widening access.

Far from becoming more manageable, however, living costs for Scottish university students are rising. A survey published earlier this month by the NUS and student accommodation group Unipol found that the average annual cost of a room in universityowned accommodation in Scotland has almost doubled over the past 10 years. The average weekly rent for a tenant in university-supplied accommodation was £58.78 in 2001/02; at the start of the current academic term that had risen to £115.49. Average rents for students in the private sector were even higher, at £139.61 per week. “We need Scottish universities to properly plan accommodation supply and take a hard look at capping rent increases in university-owned accommodation, to ensure students are not priced out of living in halls,” says Parker. “The cost of accommodation is really high for students, which is why we campaigned before the last Holyrood election around improving student support as well as keeping education free, because the two go hand in hand.” Parker’s hope is that the new ‘minimum income guarantee’ package of support, announced at the end of the summer parliamentary recess and due to come into force in September 2013, will not only shore up Scotland’s student support programme, but will also see a reduction in the confusion seen this year around SAAS as students approach their courses with greater certainty about their funding. “From next September, the improvements to student support will give Scotland the best student support package in the UK.” Henry is less enthusiastic about the new package. “We need to remember that this so-called student minimum income, which unfortunately the NUS have bought into, has seen a reduction in bursaries for poorer students – a 26 per cent reduction in bursary income and an increase in loans,” Henry says.

The income guarantee includes an increase in loan funding and a decrease in grant funding – a process which has already begun in the way some transport funds are disbursed. “The Scottish Government says they don’t want students leaving university in debt, and yet they’re forcing students to take out loans. In what other walk of life is a loan regarded as a minimum income? It’s just absurd, it’s a contradiction in terms.

“This is a government that promised to wipe out student debt, it’s one of the big promises that helped them get elected in 2007, but they’ve walked away from that and introduced a system that is increasing loans and increasing debt. To me, it’s a con, and unfortunately the NUS have signed up to it and given it cover and agreed to a reduction in real income for poorer students.” Parker and the NUS nonetheless consider it a “huge step forward”, and believe that together with a commitment to free education, it could help make studying not only more affordable, but more equitable.

“The two together give us the building blocks of widening access in Scotland,” says Parker, “but you need the two together before you can unlock that potential.”

Paris Gourtsoyannis Paris Gourtsoyannis

Paris joined Holyrood in September 2011, and became education correspondent in May 2012. Born in Canada into a Greek family, and raised in Belgium, he came to Scotland in 2005 to study at the University of Edinburgh, where he was involved with award-winning student publication The Journal. Before working at Holyrood, Paris contributed to the Edinburgh Evening News, the Guardian and Guardian Local, and interned at think-tank Demos. His beat takes in all areas of Scotland's education and skills sector, including early years, adult learning, and employability...

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