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Closing the gap in class participation

The intention to focus on "uncertain learners" and encourage more youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds to go on to higher education, as promoted at the Universities Scotland conference last week, is highly laudable.

However, it is no good merely devoting high sounding rhetoric to the problem. Some seriously hard decisions have to be made.

Currently, some 50 per cent of all school-leavers enter higher education but, according to figures presented at the Universities Scotland conference, this average masks considerably different participation rates from middle and working-class families. With middle-class youngsters, 64 per cent go on to higher education whereas the figure is only 34 per cent for working-class youngsters.

This raises the question of what exactly is intended when ministers talk about "closing the gap" in participation levels? Do they intend bringing the working-class participation rate up to that of the middle class which, in turn, would mean a 28 per cent expansion in higher education? Or, alternatively, do they expect the two rates to converge at the current overall 50 per cent figure which would require a cut in middle-class participation?

I asked the minister that very question at the conference last week and, surprisingly, he actually replied. He said that there was no intention to expand higher education and that perhaps currently some middle-class youngsters were going to university who might be better taking a different post-school route.

This is in line with a growing awareness among young people that there is no automatic pot of gold at the end of a degree course, but there is a massive debt pile. Many are coming to realise that there are other, equally valid but less debt-ridden ways both to a satisfying job and to increasing personal knowledge.

The Executive is to be commended for being willing to take the hard decisions but it is important that everyone understands that this is its intention.

Judith Gillespie Development manager Scottish Parent Teacher Council

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