Education is a public good, it’s the best route we have to tackling poverty and inequality. A good education system that benefits people, not profit is the key to the prosperous future we all want for Scotland.
However, that’s not the tertiary education system we have just now. Despite some progress, in the 25th year of the Scottish Parliament, the system we have in Scotland is failing students.
Here are just 5 areas in which our education system is broken:
1. The funding model is unfair and unsustainable.
The funding model under which higher and further education operates in Scotland is both unfair and unsustainable.
For a decade the funding the Scottish Government allocates to colleges and universities has failed to keep up with the rate of inflation, each year the money covers less of the cost, and it’s getting worse. The planned budget for the coming year contains devastating cash terms cuts to higher and further education funding.
This systematic underfunding has led institutions down a route in which they are increasingly reliant on the money brought in by international students' fees, and as such they have started treating them as ‘cash cows’. People who come to Scotland to learn should feel welcomed and enriched, not exploited.
The way we fund, or rather underfund, tertiary education has contributed to an increased ‘marketisation’ in which universities and colleges are being run like businesses rather than places of learning. Costs are being cut and that means worse working conditions for staff.
Over the past 10 years, university and college teaching staff have faced a real-term pay cut of at least around 20%, and according to research by UCU, 46% of UK universities and 60% of UK colleges use zero hours contracts to deliver teaching.
Staff who don’t feel secure and well-compensated aren’t going to be able to create the best learning environment they can for students. It’s in everyone’s interest to see them fairly treated.
We desperately need change to the funding model.
2. Student finance isn’t fit for purpose.
There may not be tuition fees for many in Scotland but that doesn’t mean there is no cost to education.
Students can’t properly learn if they don’t have enough money to live on, and unfortunately, most don’t as grants and loans are currently not covering costs. Even before the current crisis in the cost of living, there was an ongoing crisis in the cost of learning.
Students in higher education who need more support can get it due to the system of means-testing for loans but this also means that the poorest students end up leaving university with the highest level of student loan debt – an unjust and unfair outcome.
The situation in further education is even less fair as the means-testing for bursaries is inconsistent from area to area resulting in a ‘postcode lottery’, where students in similar financial situations studying the same subjects may receive widely different levels of support depending on if they’re college is in Ayrshire or Aberdeen, Glasgow or Galashiels.
The insufficient financial support means a large majority of students have to work while also trying to learn and 37% of students and apprentices have told us they worry or stress about their finances all the time. How can we expect people to get the best out of their education when their time is spent either working or worrying?
We’ve made some progress, as in December NUS Scotland secured a win when the Scottish Government announced a £2,400 uplift to student support for higher education students but we’re still awaiting an announcement on any potential uplifts in support for further education students and part-time students.
Regardless we need more than short-term, piecemeal measures, we need long-term fixes to student finance and a complete move away from loans in favour of grants – no one should have to go into debt to get an education.
3. Student Housing is in a state of emergency.
There has been a housing crisis in Scotland for longer than many students have been alive but the situation has been getting worse with housing becoming increasingly unaffordable, insecure and poor quality.
With cities across Scotland declaring ‘housing emergencies’ the Scottish Government is attempting to take action but has left students out in the cold.
The emergency rent cap measures are riddled with loopholes for changing tenancies that make students particularly vulnerable to rent increases and they completely exclude those living in Purpose-Built Student Accommodation. Further to that there’s no indication that they plan to include PBSA in more permanent rent controls either, and rent control legislation that doesn’t cover PBSA is quite simply a license for landlords to exploit students.
Students can’t properly learn if they don’t have a safe and affordable place to live but rent has been increasing at a higher rate than student support year after year and a shocking 12% of students in Scotland have experienced homelessness during their studies, a rate higher that of the general population.
Housing is a fundamental human right but right now it’s being treated as a commodity for a small few to profit off of at the price of the most vulnerable in society, students in particular.
4. Public transport in Scotland is going nowhere fast.
Good and affordable public transport is about ensuring equal opportunities and equal access, which are fundamental to a well-functioning education system, but public transport in Scotland is neither good nor affordable.
It is the most common way for students to travel to class in Scotland but the cost of public transport has risen quicker than inflation, and more than the cost of driving. This is at the same time as the crisis in housing is forcing students to live further and further away from where they learn.
On top of this, whereas in many European countries it is possible to buy integrated through-tickets which include different means of transport for a multi-leg journey in one ticket or smartcard, this is not the case in Scotland where different companies run each service between regions and modes of transport.
The UK has the most expensive train tickets in Europe, and despite this in April train fares in Scotland are set to rise by 8.7% - over double the current rate of inflation.
Although the more affordable means of travel, the cost of buses is rising at an even greater rate than trains. This is a natural consequence of the majority of Scotland still having a privatised bus system, which is run as a business that prioritises profit rather than a public service which prioritises people.
Research by the Poverty and Inequality Commission found that the cost of transport acts as a barrier to accessing education and that the issue is particularly acute for students travelling to college in rural areas.
The hard-won free bus travel for under 21s is a measure NUS Scotland proudly campaigned for but it is not enough when we know that the majority of students and apprentices (55%) in Scotland are over the age of 21.
As an immediate way of enabling more students to use public transport, NUS Scotland is campaigning for half-price bus and train fares all day, for all students and apprentices – regardless of age.
5. There’s a crisis in Student Mental Health.
Students don’t only have to contend with poor public transport and crises in housing, finance and funding but have just lived through the world’s first global pandemic in 100 years, are feeling the blunt end of 13 years of austerity policies, and are having to process a world of political, environmental and economic turmoil. All of this has, unsurprisingly, created an environment which is negatively impacting their mental health.
If we want students to prosper, thrive and learn they need access to adequate mental health services and support but they’re not getting it.
The latest Thriving Learners University survey results revealed that from a sample of 15,000 students across Scotland, 74% reported low wellbeing, and 45% said that they had experienced a serious psychological issue they felt needed professional help.
While there have been significant strides in the mental health support offered by HE and FE institutions to students, the funding being allocated is still very much inadequate to address the full scale of the issue. On top of this, the Scottish Government has taken the approach of determining funding for these services on a short-term basis, making it harder for institutions to forward plan and leaving staff insecure and students unsure if the services they rely on will always be there.
Want to know more?
Our recent Broke Students, Broken System report details to a far greater extent the failures of our current tertiary education system. It explores these five key pillars of an education system: the funding model, student finance, housing, public transport, and mental health; and details how they are being allowed to crumble in Scotland and can be read in full here.
The situation may be dire but it is not an inevitability that it must stay this way, a better education system in Scotland is possible and we’re determined to see it. Over the coming months, we will release two further reports in the Broken System series. The first will outline international best practice and policy ideas from countries comparable to Scotland, demonstrating the different choices available to our current path and the second will present a roadmap towards a new, better system - built by Scotland’s students from the ground up.