HE access widens – but there’s a long way to go

15th July 2016 at 00:00
While more poorer students are going to university, progress may falter, study finds

The number of school-leavers from poor backgrounds getting into Scottish universities has risen – but not nearly fast enough, according to Audit Scotland’s first major analysis of higher education.

And any progress is in danger of grinding to a halt over the coming years as HE income falls, in turn scuppering plans to create more funded places for disadvantaged students.

The report (bit.ly/UniAudit) identifies an urgent need for research into how debt might deter poorer school-leavers from going to university, as figures show that they amass more debt than affluent students.

Awareness also needs to be raised in schools, the report finds, as families from deprived backgrounds are often in the dark about the support available should their children choose to apply to university.

Targets out of reach?

In 2005-06, some 9.1 per cent of young, first-time entrants into full-time undergraduate courses were from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland; in 2014-15, this rose to 10.8 per cent. This still leaves a mountain to climb if the ultimate target of 20 per cent is to be reached by 2030, not to mention the interim goal of 16 per cent by 2021.

“Given current rates of progress, there will need to be a considerable increase in the number of students entering higher education from more deprived backgrounds if the targets are to be met,” the report states.

The challenge will become even harder in the years ahead, Audit Scotland finds, as HE faces a “number of significant challenges”.

These include rising costs, potential further reductions in funding and the risk of flatlining income from other sources, particularly fee-paying students from other parts of the UK and non-EU countries. A decrease in the Scottish Funding Council budget, for example, means that it cannot fund any new university places for students from further education colleges or deprived backgrounds in 2016-17.

Meanwhile, despite the government’s flagship free tuition policy, loans now make up most of the financial support students receive, after the value of bursaries and grants fell 53 per cent in a decade.

Students from the most deprived areas rack up higher levels of loan debt than more affluent peers, and the gap is growing: the average was £8,719 in 2014-15, 7 per cent higher in real terms than in 2005-06 – meanwhile, the average for students from the least deprived areas fell by 1 per cent, to £7,534. The average at the point of repayment is £11,281 – compared with £23,777 in England – but it is predicted to rise to about £20,000 by 2019.

Compounding that problem, there is a particular “lack of understanding among students from deprived backgrounds, and their parents, about the student finance available”.

The report also criticises a paucity of information on how changes to student support affect those from poorer backgrounds, and calls on the Scottish government to undertake research in this area – its last detailed survey of student income was carried out in 2007-08.

The slight rise in undergraduates from poor areas comes amid an overall drop in Scottish students securing places at Scottish universities – suggesting that middle-class school-leavers are, for now at least, more likely to be squeezed out.

With higher education institutions increasingly reliant on income from students from outside Scotland who pay fees, the offer rate – the proportion of applicants offered a place – for Scottish students fell from 57 per cent in 2010 to 50 per cent in 2015. In contrast, the 2015 offer rate was 63 per cent for international students from outside the EU and between 56 and 58 per cent for applicants from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Andrea Bradley, assistant secretary at the EIS teaching union, told TESS that poorer children tended to suffer when applying to university because their parents could not afford private tutors and the sort of experiences – in sport, travel and work – that led to impressive personal statements.

The prospect of debt was “likely to be off-putting,” with cuts to social security making the situation even worse, she said, adding that the EIS wanted a “significant government intervention”, such as reintroducing student grants.

Not all universities are investing enough in programmes to widen access that are run jointly with Scottish schools, Ms Bradley added.

FE and HE minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said that the government “had committed to implementing all the recommendations” in the recent Commission on Widening Access and that the free tuition policy contributed to the average student loan debt in Scotland being the lowest in the UK.

‘Resources are insufficient to transform access’

There are some excellent initiatives, led by Scottish universities, that provide sustained and intensive support to students from schools that traditionally have lower rates of transition from school to university.

One exceptional example is Glasgow Caledonian University’s Caledonian Club, which works with pupils from five school clusters in Glasgow, offering experiences to familiarise pupils with HE, raise aspirations and provide tailored support at the application stage. This starts in nursery school and is sustained through primary and secondary.

However, while resources are made available to widen participation, these are insufficient to transform access.

Paradoxically, there is no strong evidence to suggest that fear of debt is a deterrent to university study. On the other hand, it is now more commonplace for students to combine study with part-time work – often for many hours – which, although reducing debt, reduces the time and energy that students commit to their studies.

Professor John McKendrick is a child poverty expert at Glasgow Caledonian University

Connecting schools and universities

University staff recently criticised schools for not doing enough to get poor pupils into university.

At The Journey to Fairness, an event about widening access in Edinburgh last month, they claimed that some teachers had low expectations of certain pupils and blocked visits from university teams, with guidance staff receiving particular criticism.

But Gerry Lyons, headteacher of St Andrew’s RC Secondary in Glasgow’s East End, argued that universities needed to up their game. “To what extent does some of that commitment from higher education institutions go beyond rhetoric?” he asked.

The vast majority of guidance teachers were “highly supportive” and he was “astonished” about universities’ apparent difficulties in getting into some schools. “I can’t quite understand why any school wouldn’t want to engage with higher education,” he said.

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