By Woody Whittick, MPA student at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
The Scottish Government have made many strong commitments to education – not least of which is the commitment to ‘free’ education for undergraduates. It has also expressed a commitment to increasing postgraduate student numbers (see here) (particularly for people sharing protected characteristics such as disability). As part of this support for postgraduates there are loans available to support both the payment of fees and living expenses: http://www.saas.gov.uk/full_time/pg/index.htm
I applied to do the Master of Public Administration (MPA) at Queen Margaret University in order to enhance my future career prospects, which have been set back by incurable health problems. However, I was shocked to discover that although postgraduate students elsewhere in Britain can access living costs (maintenance) loans whether they study full- or part-time, in Scotland only full-time postgraduates can receive maintenance loans.
This rule has put me in a catch-22 situation. Multi-systemic symptoms worsen with extended or cumulative sitting, so I can’t manage full-time work or study, or both part-time work and study. Years of limited earnings have prevented me accumulating savings. I need to study part-time, but can’t afford to without a maintenance loan.
This seems deeply unfair as the decision to only allow full-time students to receive a maintenance loan is disproportionately detrimental to disabled people and to women. We still live in a society where women are statistically more likely than men to have responsibilities for childcare or adult dependants, and therefore may be less able to study full-time or save in advance for living expenses. They may, like me, have to give up part-time work in order to study.
I have received some support from Queen Margaret University which has helped. But this doesn’t solve my living expenses problem. I have searched widely but unsuccessfully for alternative maintenance funding.
In the end I have started the MPA as a full-time student – facing no other feasible option. Unfortunately however, within a few short weeks my neurological symptoms worsened. I feel this proves my point – the current rules are discriminatory towards those with disabilities. This seems to run counter to both the Equalities Act and Human Rights legislation. However, a ‘statutory authority exemption’ applies, meaning I cannot take legal action to redress discrimination using the Equality Act. The only legal recourse is via Judicial Review, at a likely cost of c£30K+. Again, I face a seemingly insurmountable hurdle.
The current status of my case is that I am awaiting the outcome of an appeal to SAAS. I hope that the concerns I have raised, as summarised above, will be taken into account and I will be given the support I need to continue my studies. In the meantime have established that the rule originates from a 2015 statutory amendment. I discovered that the regulations have been successfully challenged at Judicial Review on the grounds of age discrimination, resulting in the upper age limit for loans being raised. I seem to be the first person to have highlighted that these regulations are also discriminatory in other ways. I also now understand that although the government has committed to undertaking Equality Impact Assessments before implementing new legislation, it seems they failed to do so in this case.
Unless my appeal to SAAS is successful and the rule is overturned (at least for me individually) I will probably have to withdraw from my studies completely. Even if SAAS find a way to apply discretion and uphold my appeal, that will not change the rules for other people. It is an incredibly frustrating situation – and one of the ironies if this is that I am not even asking for grant funding – I am only asking for a loan which I would then be required to pay back.
Thankfully there does seem to be a lot of political support for this issue. My local MSP and I have both raised concerns with the Cabinet Ministers for Education and Equality, with cross-party support from the shadow Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative MSPs with portfolios for Education or Equalities, who have all raised concerns to John Swinney through the appropriate channels. We await his response and hope that others will not face the same challenges and frustrations that I have encountered in seeking to complete postgraduate study.