Student representatives have hit out at colleges for “unfairly” charging students who drop out of their courses – despite the Scottish government making a commitment to free higher education.
The criticism comes as an exclusive Tes Scotland survey reveals that a number of colleges have charged higher education students who withdrew before 1 December – the deadline students needed to reach for the college to receive funding for their tuition from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS).
While some have a policy of charging for the proportion of the course a student has completed, others charge an administration fee – despite free higher education in Scotland being one of the cornerstones of the government’s education policy. In 2011, then first minister Alex Salmond said that “rocks [would] melt with the sun” before he allowed tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.
Colleges said that recent changes in admission policy for a number of universities were one reason why many students withdrew early – they were often offered a university place after already starting at college.
In the Tes Scotland survey, six colleges – City of Glasgow, Glasgow Clyde, West College Scotland, North East Scotland, Forth Valley and Glasgow Kelvin – said their policy was to charge certain HE students if they dropped out before the cut-off. However, Glasgow Clyde said it was currently reviewing that policy and had not charged anyone this year, and Glasgow Kelvin said it sought to recover money from employers where they are supposed to be funding students.
The Scottish government said that it “does not place any obligation on institutions to charge tuition fees to students who withdraw from their course – the decision to do so is a matter for individual colleges and universities”.
The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), made up of 13 colleges and research institutions, highlighted its policy that undergraduate students fully funded by SAAS are not be liable for tuition fees if they withdraw before 1 November; “however a £100 administrative charge will be made”. A spokesperson added: “We are currently looking at our policy for students who withdraw between 1 November and 1 December.”
Undergraduate students receiving a tuition fee loan from the Student Loans Company are liable for 25 per cent of that tuition fee loan if they withdraw before the start of the second semester, according to the UHI policy. If they withdraw on or before 31 March, they are liable for 50 per cent, and withdrawal after 31 March means the student is liable for the repayment of the full tuition fee loan.
Dundee and Angus, South Lanarkshire, West Lothian, Edinburgh, Dumfries and Galloway, Fife and Ayrshire colleges said they did not charge any students who withdrew before the funding deadline.
Luke Humberstone, president of the NUS Scotland students’ union, said it was “appalling that colleges are imposing financial sanctions on students who leave their course, rather than reaching out to help them overcome the issues that are causing them to leave”.
“Free tuition should mean free tuition for all – whether you’re at college or university, but right now, by a quirk of the system, some college students are missing out on this. That’s not fair,” he added.
Mr Humberstone said that colleges played a vital role in the education system – often working with those who are at risk of missing out on post-16 education, and helping them to access life-changing opportunities.
Colleges Scotland said that the retention and success of students was “of paramount importance”. A spokeswoman said: “The progress of students is monitored, and both proactive and reactive support structures provide extensive help to ensure that students facing challenges – whether that is personal, financial, or academic – can address these and remain on their course.”
“However, anecdotal evidence from our members would suggest an increasing number of students beginning Higher National courses have subsequently left college to take up a late unconditional offer to go to university. Such movement within a system with limited places available leaves the college sector in an unsustainable financial situation.”
She said evidence from one college alone indicated that early withdrawal had cost implications of over £200,000 over the past three academic years. “Colleges will continue to provide support systems for those students who need it, ensuring that they receive the help and assistance required to remain and succeed in education,” she added.