As students celebrated their exam results last week, there was also good news on widening access to higher education. Figures from admissions body Ucas showed that a record number of students from Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas had gained a place at university.
It was then revealed that two of Scotland’s ancient universities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, were to give all their clearing places – those yet to be filled after results day – to deprived students, with the aim of further improving their record on widening access.
However, the mechanism used to both measure the proportion of students from deprived backgrounds and assess eligibility for the clearing places at Edinburgh and Glasgow has attracted criticism from opposition politicians. Indeed, the reliability of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) has long been questioned by education institutions and experts alike.
The measure assesses the level of deprivation within a postcode – meaning that deprived students in wealthier postcodes can fall through the net. Research has shown that 65 per cent of young people from low-income households do not live in the SIMD20 postcodes that officially constitute the 20 per cent most deprived parts of Scotland.
This week, Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman and Shetland MSP Tavish Scott wrote to Professor Peter Mathieson, principal of the University of Edinburgh, saying that the decision to apply SIMD20 in the criteria for applications would exclude deprived students from Shetland.
Scott had previously criticised the University of Aberdeen’s decision to award a year’s free accommodation to SIMD20 students. And a freedom of information request by the Liberal Democrats revealed that Robert Gordon University, also in Aberdeen, was operating two SIMD-only schemes – one of which gave students a “goodie bag” worth £250.
In his letter this week, Mr Scott writes that, while the University of Edinburgh’s commitment to increasing the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is certainly welcome, he has “serious concerns about this policy to restrict clearing places to those from the SIMD20 postcodes”.
He adds: “This is a crude mechanism to target those most disadvantaged young people … You will recognise the consequence of this policy is that applicants from entire communities are excluded, like from my own constituency of Shetland, which has no SIMD postcodes.” Mr Scott continues: “There is no one simple and faultless measure of deprivation but it is stating the obvious to say that a prospective student’s personal circumstances cannot be ascertained solely by their postcode.
“Therefore, I would urge you to reconsider this flawed policy.”
Shetland is not the only rural area affected by the limitations of SIMD as a measure. The University of the Highlands and Islands says that there are only 47 SIMD20 postcodes across its main operating area, none of which are within the island communities.
“While we perform well in recruiting from the most deprived areas compared with the proportion of the population that lives there, given the rural nature of our region and the challenges that this brings for access, we are looking more towards inclusion of agreed measures of deprivation due to rurality through discussion with the Scottish Funding Council,” a spokeswoman says.
In the past, the use of SIMD20 as a measure has often adversely affected colleges and universities attempting to attract extra funding for deprived students and to meet government targets. It has even been criticised by the Commission on Widening Access, which said it was a blunt measure.
Liam McCabe, president of the NUS Scotland students’ union, says that, while the Ucas figures published earlier this month show a modest rise in acceptances for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, “there is still some way to go before we see major progress”.
He adds: “The Commission on Widening Access rightly recommended that SIMD should be used for monitoring fair access targets, while noting its limitations. That’s why, in the coming months, cross-sectoral work being led by the Scottish government to bolster SIMD will be so important. We look forward to seeing the conclusion of this work.”
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, says that while the use of SIMD as a measure of deprivation is not without its challenges, “at present it is the best and most appropriate data set available”. She adds: “Moving forward, a more robust and nuanced measure, developed in partnership with those working on policy to widen access to post-16 education, would be worth considering.”
A University of Edinburgh spokeswoman says that clearing for care-experienced and SIMD20 Scottish applicants is only one of the mechanisms used to help widen participation.
“Each mechanism addresses a specific barrier to higher education,” she adds. “For example, our Scotland and University of Edinburgh scholarships provide generous financial support based on household income level.”