An unequal struggle

13th March 2015 at 00:00

The Holyrood Health and Sport Committee's recent report on health inequalities in Scotland illustrates that the gulf between rich and poor continues to grow wider (bit.lyReportHealth). It also draws attention to the transformative power of education.

In recent years the Scottish government has made widening access to higher education a priority. But the nation's record has remained poor: just 13 per cent of students come from the 20 per cent most deprived data zones. Political criticism has been directed at some of our elite institutions for stalling in this important area.

At the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) we have consistently bucked the national trend. Just under 25 per cent of our entrants are from the 20 per cent most socially deprived communities. These students come to UWS to be exposed to personalised learning experiences, underpinned by internationally recognised academic research - but also to be nurtured and supported.

Our approach to widening participation involves a vast amount of engagement with schools and colleges. For example, our academic and support staff work with 21 schools through the Focus West initiative Routes for All, paid for by the Scottish Funding Council. Student mentors help S5 and S6 pupils prepare for the transition to university. One of the many participating young people who have recently made the move from school said: "It made me think hard and long [and] helped me to choose a definite career path".

UWS academics also deliver specific modules to support transition from schools and colleges. For instance, the Step Up to University module is delivered on an outreach basis to S6 pupils in local authority secondaries. Last year, 435 students enrolled on the module.

As an organisation, UWS also has articulation agreements with eight of Scotland's colleges and we take more than 1,000 students into our programmes by direct entry every year. One student recently reflected the views of many when he said: "Coming out of school with nothing and ending up with an honours degree is the best feeling ever."

Interestingly, the outcomes of a recent rigorous analysis of student and academic demographic characteristics has revealed that there is now no difference in retention and progression rates between UWS students who are from the 20 per cent most deprived areas and those who are not.

As a nation we need to ensure that we end inequality in education as a means of bridging social and economic gaps. And as our Scottish higher education institutions continue to seek new ways to do so, perhaps they need look no further than UWS for inspiration.

Professor Ross Deuchar is assistant dean at the University of the West of Scotland's School of Education

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