‘Significant challenges’ ahead for Scottish higher education as graduate debt set to almost double

Scotland's estimated £20,000 debt amount, however, pales in comparison to England's almost £45,000 per student

Aftab Ali
Student Editor
Friday 08 July 2016 13:01

The once-envied higher education system of Scotland is facing “significant challenges” with the revelation debt levels are set to almost double as it becomes more difficult for Scottish students to get into university.

Over the next three years, university debt in the country is set to rise from £11,281 per student to around £20,000.

However, the cost north of the border pales in comparison to that of graduates in England who are now leaving with estimated debts of almost £45,000 since the tripling of tuition fees. Before the increase five years ago, the level was at just £16,200 per student, making England the nation with the highest level of graduate debt when compared with any other anglophone country.

The startling news has come following a major review, the first of its kind, by Audit Scotland which has also revealed how it has become more difficult in recent years for Scottish and EU undergrads to gain a place at a Scottish university.

With the number of students studying at Scottish universities having increased by five per cent over the last decade, the main reason for this is that applications have increased at a greater rate than increases in the number of funded places available for Scottish and EU students; applications have increased by 23 per cent since 2010, yet the number of offers made by universities has increased by only nine per cent.

The Scottish higher education system has long been looked at with envy from other parts of the UK - and further afield - for its top-class institutions, student funding system, and no tuition fees. However, the auditors’ report seems to have dealt another blow to the country’s universities following another recent report from social mobility charity, the Sutton Trust.

In May, the Trust found that, despite offering free tuition, Scotland has the worst record than anywhere else in the UK when it comes to getting students from poorer backgrounds into university.

Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, described how Scottish universities benefit individuals, communities and economies both at home and abroad. However, she added: “It’s a complex sector which receives significant amounts of public money, both in the form of direct funding to universities and in financial support to students.

“Given the growing pressures on public finances, the Scottish Government must be clear about its priorities for higher education and how it will target public funding to support those aims. It also needs to work with the Scottish Funding Council and universities to plan for addressing the challenges ahead.”

Politicians have been quick to blame the SNP for the report’s stark findings. Labour education spokesman, Iain Gray, described how it “lays bare...the SNP’s refusal to protect education budgets,” reports the Daily Record, while Tory education spokeswoman, Liz Smith, added the it sends “a very stark warning to the Scottish Government about the funding crisis the SNP have created.”

The SNP, however, has said Scotland’s free tuition means the country has the lowest student loan debt amount than anywhere else in the UK, with a spokesperson saying the Scottish Government will consider all the report has found.

However, despite the largely less-than-positive findings, Audit Scotland did find the majority of Scottish students have a positive experience of higher education, and 90 per cent progressed from university to employment or further study in 2014.

Audit Scotland’s report has come in the same week it was also revealed around 70 per cent of students who left university last year are expected never to finish repaying their loans.

According to analysis provided to the Financial Times by NatWest, they will, instead, have to make repayments for 30 years before having the unpaid loan written off, something which is highly likely to affect an entire generation of potential homebuyers.

Sebastian Burnside, an economist at NatWest, told the Financial Times: “Compared to previous generations of homebuyers, it will take longer for them to have the income necessary to fund the homes they want to buy.”

New Hesa stats have also shown an overall increase in first degree leavers entering employment or further study last year, yet big gaps still remain at some universities and among certain ethnic groups.

Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, said: “It’s welcome news that graduate employment rates are continuing to rise, showing the value of our world-class universities in helping people into rewarding careers.

“But there is always more to do, particularly with variations in job prospects depending on a student’s background, ethnic group, or what course they studied. That’s why we are delivering on our manifesto commitment to introduce a new teaching excellence framework that will help ensure all students get the higher education experience they deserve.”

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