Theresa May’s announcement of a review into tuition fees and funding in England and Wales has reignited the debate over the cost of university education and student debt.

Ferret Fact Service | Scotlands impartial fact check project

SNP MP Joanna Cherry appeared on the Andrew Marr Show on 18 February to discuss the issue, and made a claim about the difference between Scotland’s system and the rest of the UK.

Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it to be Mostly False.


The year-long review in England and Wales will focus on “driving up quality, increasing choice and ensuring value for money”, according the to the government.

However, Theresa May has effectively ruled out scrapping fees, saying students “who benefit directly from higher education should contribute directly towards the cost of it”.

One of the major issues around university education in the UK is student debt. Cherry’s claim was that Scottish students are leaving university without a “huge debt” as they do not have to pay tuition fees.

University tuition fees were reintroduced by Tony Blair’s government in 1998, and were then replaced by a graduate endowment in Scotland to help to fund bursaries.

When the SNP came to power in 2007, the party made ending student fees a central part of its programme. This took place in 2008, with the scrapping of the previous endowment scheme. Tuition fees for Scottish students are now paid for by the Scottish Government through the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS).

In England, the level of tuition fees has gone up to £9,250 per year.

However, many students in Scotland still need loans to cover their living expenses while they study.

Figures from the Student Loans Company (SLC) show the average yearly loan amount per student in 2016/17 was £5,830. This is a small increase on the previous year, and a 55.9 per cent increase since 2007/8 when tuition fees were scrapped.

For graduates who left a year ago, the average amount of debt owed was £11,740.

This is lower than every other UK country. In England, the 2017 cohort average is estimated as £32,220.

In Wales, where fees are partly mitigated by a grant, the average student debt is £19,280. Northern Ireland’s figure was £20,990, according to Student Loans Company statistics.

However, these figures come with a health warning. Scots are more likely to undertake shorter courses, partly due to Scotland’s wider provision of college education, and so the Student Loans figure may understate the amount of debt that a normal undergraduate on a four-year course would accumulate.

Education researcher Lucy Hunter Blackburn estimated in 2014 that the figure “consistently represented only around two-thirds of the average amount [of debt] that a four year honours degree student would have accumulated”.

However, the amount of debt varies significantly when the student’s background is taken into account. Students from a poorer background are likely to take out larger loans to cover living costs, and are less likely to receive financial support from their family.

According to SAAS data, those from the poorest 20 per cent receive around £900 more in loans each year.

Those who report no household income and receive the maximum in living costs would owe around £2000 more per year than those who are in the highest household income bracket.

In Scotland, there has been a marked reduction in the number of students receiving bursaries and grants in recent years. Most student living cost support is therefore in the form of loans, which represents the majority of Scottish student debt.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly False

It is not accurate to say Scots leave university without a significant debt. While Scottish students do not have to pay tuition fees and official figures show a lower level of overall average debt than other UK countries, there is an increasing level year-on-year and student bursaries have been cut.

This claim is Mostly False

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Email us at or join our community forum.

The SNP did not respond to an FFS request for evidence of the the claim.


  1. russed says:

    Poor effort, Cherry stated clearly “huge debt”, your mostly false findings refers specifically to “significant debt”. You are not comparing like with like and “significant” is an entirely subjetcive term NOT used in the statement in question. What is “significant” is that in comparison to the other UK Nations Scotlands student debt is greatly reduced. Whethr the figure for Scotland is considered “significant” is your term so invalid to the fact check statement, but in comparison to the others it surely cannot be considered huge if it is in fact a fraction. Suggest further consideration on this one chaps.

  2. Cheers pal…

    Thought the same when I read the article… Joanna Cherry, being a lawyer to trade, is always very precise with her words.

    The Ferret is, normally, as well. Unusual slip-up from them…

  3. There are several serious problems with this article and The Ferret needs to take another look at the issue.

    1. They do not define “huge debt”.

    2. They SEEM to be implying that students in Scotland leave with the same debt as students in England and Wales, which is a ridiculous claim on the very face of it.

    3. They attribute the normal cost of living as an educational expense. Are they seriously proposing that were the students out of education they would not have costs of housing, food, etc.? That these costs are attributable to education is False.

    4. They follow up with the comment that in Wales students have less debt because they are offered LOANS. Loans do not decrease debt. The interest increases it.

    This is not up to the usual standards of The Ferret and I am disappointed in the sloppy work here.

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