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Bursaries will not breach barriers

IT IS HARD to see that small amounts of bursary money to a handful of "traditional" universities will broaden the social base of students in higher education. All universities, including Oxbridge, aspire to attract students from poorer backgrounds, and their comparative lack of success is not likely to be affected by extra cash from the Executive. But as Tom Kelly of the Association of Scottish Colleges pointed out in the TES Scotland last week, there are often barriers to the aspirations of principals and admissions officers.

Faculties in the ancient universities may turn up their nose at applicants with other than the customary school qualifications; they do not yet understand the progression from higher national certificate and diploma into the later years of undergraduate courses. In future, they may well turn to Advanced Higher as a benchmark qualification even for pupils from schools whose roll or socil setting makes a panoply of Advanced Higher courses an impossibility.

Already universities are informally ranked in terms of desirability, with student facilities as well as history and academic prowess among the determinants of where an institution stands. Research at Glasgow University (FE Focus, page 34) indicates that pupils from less advantaged families tend to shun the "best" universities, whose middle- class character is thereby re-emphasised. Matriculation at mainly residential institutions may particularly be affected by reluctance of less affluent students to incur extra debt.

On the assumption that Scotland does not want to create an Oxbridge-style elite of universities for undergraduates (it may be inevitable at research level), a nod by Wendy Alexander, Lifelong Learning Minister, in the direction of greater inclusiveness will not be enough to counter deeply embedded attitudes.

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