Let's open more doors for the disadvantaged

Gillian Macdonald

This week, as fifth-years gear up for their Highers and sixth-years search for student accommodation in the autumn, we look at the universities and what they are doing to help young people gain entrance to higher education, particularly those from the poorest backgrounds (News Focus, pages 12-15).

Scottish universities have the worst record in the UK for admitting pupils from deprived areas - just over a quarter of their intake compared with Northern Ireland's 40 per cent. The ancient universities are the worst culprits. St Andrews came bottom of the league last year with only 15 per cent, followed by Edinburgh with 17 per cent.

Not only are young people with ability being penalised because of their background, as NUS Scotland president Robin Parker puts it, but universities are missing out on talented people - in a country that is trying to close the poverty gap.

This year, the Scottish government decided to act, so its announcement of more money for universities came with strings attached, among them a financial penalty for any that failed to widen access. All Scottish universities must now sign local outcome agreements and failure to do so will result in their teaching and research funding being capped at last year's amount. Harsh measures for harsh times.

Some universities have done well - mostly new ones such as Abertay, Robert Gordon and Glasgow Caledonian, where a third of the intake comes from deprived areas. Several have developed excellent schemes in an attempt to change social attitudes from the earliest age - at nursery, even - so that university forms a natural part of children's aspirations, regardless of family background. Aberdeen stands out among the ancients for its success - a quarter of its intake comes from poorer areas, thanks to various schemes it has created in partnership with local schools and colleges.

FE colleges have an important role to play - again, none more than Aberdeen, which has an impressive programme that allows students with poorer results or lesser ambitions to pursue an HNC course in first year, move on to an HND in second year and then enter third-year university.

A number of schools also deserve praise for their imaginative work with universities, sometimes down to a particular individual or situation. At Govan High in Glasgow, a principal teacher of pastoral care was inspired by a strong group of S2 pupils to open what doors he could for them, from Cambridge to Harvard. Their ambitions have been transformed.

If there's one message that comes across here, it's the importance of that network of schools, colleges and universities pulling together to raise ambitions. Success won't happen overnight, but every teenager who makes that breakthrough to university now could represent a whole family in the next generation.


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Gillian Macdonald

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