Fair access to higher education is '40 years away'

NUS Scotland report adds up to bad news for deprived students

Julia Belgutay

It could take another 40 years to achieve fair access to higher education in Scotland, a new report by NUS Scotland claims.

The proportion of students at Scottish universities who come from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds has increased by a mere 1 per cent in five years, from 10.6 per cent in 2005-06 to 11.6 per cent in 2010-11.

Unlocking Scotland's Potential, launched this week, also revealed huge differences between universities in the number of students they take from the most deprived backgrounds.

The figures showed that at the three universities with the worst widening access record - Aberdeen, Edinburgh and St Andrews - for every one student from a deprived background there were 16 from privileged backgrounds. At St Andrews (pictured right), the ratio is 1:28, while the Scottish average is 1:2.5.

Disparities between parliamentary constituencies in terms of university access were also significant. The two constituencies with the highest proportion of school leavers going into higher education in 2010-11 were Eastwood, south of Glasgow, and Edinburgh Southern, with 68.1 per cent and 52.2 per cent respectively. Both have very low levels of multiple deprivation.

Banffshire and Buchan Coast and Glasgow Provan had the smallest percentage of school-leavers going into higher education, with 26 and 24.9 per cent respectively. But poverty appears not to be the only determinant. While deprivation levels are high in Glasgow Provan, only 7.4 per cent of pupils S1-4 in Banffshire and Buchan Coast are in the poorest 20 per cent.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, pointed out that a range of factors influenced young people's chances of going to university. Schools deserved credit for working hard to get it right for each youngster, but it was about "everybody pulling together".

The NUS is calling on the government to introduce legally binding and enforceable widening access agree- ments with all Scottish universities; and it wants the higher education sector to increase its efforts significantly to widen access.

"Universities can't do it all when it comes to fair access, but they can clearly do a great deal more," said Robin Parker, NUS Scotland president.

The report highlights good practice in Scotland and England, where universities have implemented alternative admission schemes and accepted pupils from deprived backgrounds with lower grades, "topped up" grades or taken pupils who attended summer schools. All of these could outperform other students.

A University of St Andrews spokesman said it operated an admissions policy that allowed it to differentiate between applicants and look at personal circumstances. He said instead of "gunning for the country's universities", the NUS should "look at the reasons why so few young people from areas of deprivation get the grades they need to get into the country's ancient universities".


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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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