The student support system has long been in need of reform, according to the NUS students’ union. Not only is support often insufficient but what is available to those at university is not necessarily available to their peers in further education colleges.
In a recent review of student support in Scotland, the chair, Virgin Money chief executive Jayne-Anne Gadhia, acknowledged the discrepancies that exist. “Whether in further education in Scotland’s thriving college sector, or higher education in our historic and newer universities and colleges, students need a level playing field to access the necessary financial support to commence and complete their studies,” she said.
The resulting report, A New Social Contract for Students: fairness, parity and clarity, published in November, recommends a number of changes to the funding system, including the introduction of an £8,100 minimum income for students – delivered through a combination of bursaries and loans – and a common student-support funding system across further and higher education.
New ‘social contract’
“All education should be valued equally,” Gadhia said at the time, and all students need to be “treated with equity, regardless of their background”. The report represented a “radical” rethink, and a “new social contract for students”, she added.
The government said that it would take time to consider the recommendations made in the report and, after several months, it has finally announced the measures it plans to implement as a result – many of them applying specifically to college students.
NUS Scotland president Luke Humberstone says that these include “a number of welcome steps towards embracing the principles of fairness, parity and clarity set out in the independent review of student support”.
He adds: “While the reforms can only be viewed as the first steps to reforming the system, it’s perhaps in FE where their impact will be felt most.
“For too long, prospective FE students have been given no guarantees they’ll receive any support to pay the bills if they enter education. Extending entitlement to support into FE isn’t just good news for students but also marks a significant milestone towards achieving parity across our education system.”
The government says it plans to introduce a guaranteed entitlement to support for FE students over the age of 19. This would represent a significant change from the current system, where FE support is discretionary and cash limited. In the future, students would know before applying to college whether they would receive financial support.
This academic year alone, colleges requested £4.2 million in additional bursary funding through in-year redistribution – meaning that they ran out of bursary funds before the end of the academic year. While the Scottish Funding Council has managed to meet the in-year redistribution figure over the past few years, this is not guaranteed.
The government has also announced plans to increase the maximum FE bursary to £4,500 per year from 2019-20. And, acknowledging the successful campaign run by student activists, it has said that it will scrap the 100 per cent attendance requirement attached to FE bursaries – which has led to many students losing out on support owing to unforeseen circumstances, such as a lack of funding for transport to college.
Speaking in Parliament last week, FE, higher education and science minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said the government would increase the bursary for students in FE with experience of the care system from £4,185 to £8,100 per year from the next academic year.
“This step is of particular significance as it takes the support available to care-experienced higher education and FE students to a level that is equivalent to the real living wage,” Somerville said. “Support equivalent to the real living wage was, of course, a key part of the recommendations of the review.
“We share the review’s ambition to achieve this level of support for all students and are pleased that we have been able to deliver this in the first instance for care-experienced students.”
Ending the postcode lottery
Somerville went on to say that the changes to bursary funding, which could benefit 7,000 students, would mean they no longer faced “the postcode lottery effect, which NUS Scotland has long campaigned to end”.
Humberstone cautions that there is “still more work to be done to achieve the independent review’s ambitions”.
He says: “The commitment to raise the care-experienced bursary to £8,100 will make a significant difference to the lives of care-experienced students, but we hope to see the Scottish government setting out more details on achieving their ambition for every student to receive an income tied to the living wage in the near future.
“Likewise, the Scottish government must build on its proposed further reviews to address the age restrictions that remain on bursaries, leaving younger FE learners at significant disadvantage to older counterparts.
“We will never have true parity or fairness in education while two learners from the exact same background, in the exact same classroom, receive significantly different levels of support based purely on the date they were born.”
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, says the measures announced by the government are “a step in the right direction towards a standard and fair system that provides students with adequate financial support, as well as reasonable certainty on the support they are likely to receive for the duration of their study”.
Struthers adds: “We fully support these measures to improve student support funding to ensure that all students can attend college, regardless of their personal circumstances or background. Student support funding is vital in helping many students, particularly [those] from poorer backgrounds, to access high-quality courses that lead to recognised qualifications and allow them to progress towards employment and their future careers.”