We should all exercise our educational privilege

5th December 2014 at 00:00

We all know there are things we will never be able to do. Of course, that does not mean we shouldn't try. A few months ago, for example, I started attending a bizarre and exhausting exercise class. It largely feels as though someone has tried to build a list of physical manoeuvres of which I am incapable and then added some very loud music.

We do jumps, turns, press-ups, so-called "power moves" and exercises to test a thing called "core strength" that some people (not me) are blessed with - all interrupted every 30 seconds by the blast of a siren.

And whenever I think things cannot get any further from my comfort zone, our lovely but terrifying instructor presents a strange new move and shouts at us to "find our inner Beyonc". And yet, even as every fibre of my being cries out for me to run - or hobble - out of the gym, I don't.

The reason I put myself through this is that I know that by pushing myself further than I think I can go, I will gradually improve. For an exercise regime, that is good enough. I know I'll never be as good as some, but that's fine - I don't need to become an expert. For me, taking part is all that matters.

But education should be different. It should be about pushing to get far beyond what we think we can do. There should be no limit to our possible achievements, or on the qualifications or grades we can achieve.

And yet universities - especially the institutions seen as the most selective - seem to be out of bounds for many young people in Scotland. It is not that they make an informed decision, based on their talents and strengths, to follow an alternative route into the workplace; it's that the university option never enters their minds.

Universities and colleges, together with schools, are working to change that. Although a huge mountain remains to climb, access figures for young people from the most deprived backgrounds have improved in recent years and initiatives have slowly started to bear fruit.

Now, Scotland's new first minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced the government programme for the next year, complete with ambitious targets for widening access and plans to make it a national priority (see pages 8-10).

She believes at least one in five students at university should eventually be drawn from the poorest 20 per cent of Scottish society, and government funding will support that goal.

Universities and student associations told TESS this week that they would do what they could to get more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into our university campuses and break the link between poverty and access. We can only hope they will succeed.

Not everyone has to, or should, go to university. Far from it. But whether or not to take the step into higher education should depend on personal ambition and disposition, never on family background or wealth.


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