‘F’ for Scottish universities on fairness

This eyrie has personal experience of the ability of Scottish universities to maintain the equality gap.

Apparently, older students from lone parent families who would be among a handful of individuals in three generations of both sides of their family and who achieved the grade by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and financing their way through college, are not wanted.  Not even if they also hold down a full-time job and whose job in a flagship institution in the Edinburgh hospitality sector earns them employee of the month status.

Indeed, the universities didn’t even wait to see if they had achieved the grade before rejecting them.  As they did with 146 out of the 150 college students on the same course.  Funnily enough, they did manage to find places for the two overseas students in their esteemed learning establishments.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am.   Nothing like having your suspicion that your share of tax is working to keep the classes immobile and the gap between the most and the least advantaged young people in the country intact, confirmed.

NUS Scotland’s research paints a woeful picture of the state of inequality in Scottish higher education. Under 13% of students at Scottish universities come from the most disadvantaged communities:  for students under 21, the figure is even lower, at 9.1%.  This average masks an even more uncomfortable truth:  that snobbery and elitism appears to be alive and well in our higher education system.

Three of the ancient universities – Edinburgh, St Andrews, Aberdeen – account for just over 4% of the total number of students from the lowest income communities;  it’s only when you add in Glasgow that you get close to the dismal average of 13%.  The old universities fare much better, accounting for 40% of the total.  But make no mistake, if you live and go to school in some of the poorest parts in Scotland, your chances of getting to university are slim.

Universities Scotland is casting around for blame.  “To deliver significant change in universities, you first need to tackle the root of the problem, which is the large gap in attainment according to deprivation in schools, as recent reports have confirmed.” said the umbrella body’s director, in a new take on the old excuse of a big boy done it and ran away.

But actually, many such schools in such communities have improved attainment levels in recent years.  And in any event, universities have supposedly been working to close the inequality gap since the dawn of devolution.

In 2001, university principals signed up to an action plan to improve access to higher education for inclusion, with backing from the then Scottish Executive.  Wendy Alexander was the Minister for Lifelong Learning and established a fund of £18 million over three years to help widen access.

In 2006, Universities Scotland established a social inclusion advisory group to “provide advice on formulation of social inclusion and equality policy”.  At a meeting in March 2006, this group, under the chairmanship of Sir Muir Russell, the principal at Glasgow university, considered how to establish a multi-agency approach to widening participation and recommended more systematic use of the community development approach.

Yet, despite government investment and despite the attention of the finest minds in the tertiary sector, little progress has been made.

A baseline report on Higher Education in Scotland published in 2003 – though it’s hard to tell given that the publication has no date on it, tsk – suggested that the target of increasing participation from under-represented groups by 10% by 2003 was well on the way to being met.

In 2001, 8.5% of students at the ancient universities came from the most deprived backgrounds, with 11.1% and 14.8% of the populations at the old and new universities respectively being from such groups.  Overall, 13.3% of the total student population came from deprived communities.

While these figures seem awfully familiar, caution should be applied in directly comparing the data from 2001 with that sought out by NUS Scotland, for different methodologies for calculating deprivation are used.  But it is hard to escape the observation that in ten years, we have made no progress in increasing access to higher education for young people with the most disadvantage; indeed, it seems to have regressed slightly.

Which is some indictment on all those years of record investment in higher education, all those action plans, special funds and focused attention.

It is also worth noting that this stasis in the socio-economic make-up of our student population has also come at a time when attempts to change the funding mechanisms were tried and changed.   The graduation tax introduced by the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive was short-lived and Scotland has more recently rejected tuition fees.  Moreover, maintenance grants have been re-introduced for the poorest students.  Yet, none of it seems to be working.

Free tuition has been a key political battleground and has regularly been touted as equitable, yet that remains to be seen.

Will the policy result in an influx of students from the poorest pairts, or will it simply continue to maintain the gap, enabling those from the wealthiest communities in Scotland and young people from private education (who still make up a disproportionately high cohort in our universities) to gain at others’ expense?  Indeed, given that overall numbers at university are falling, there is a risk that the gap widens in the next few years.

My perspective might be coloured by personal experience but facts are chiels that winna’ ding.  Our higher education sector has been practising elitism for decades and no matter what is tried, the fact remains that if you go to school in one of the poorest communities in Scotland, your chances of getting to university are slim.

Our universities, particularly the oldest and supposedly best performing, are failing in their responsibility to tackle the significant inequalities in Scottish society.   And worse, have only lame excuses to offer to explain their failure.

5 thoughts on “‘F’ for Scottish universities on fairness

  1. It is easy to bash the universities, or indeed the schools, but this a problem for all of society. Blaming the old universities ignores the wider problems.

    Only 7% of SIMD20 stay on at school from S4 to S6 while the national stay on rate is 52%. 44% of scottish school leavers from SIMD20 leave with qualifications below standard grade which makes it hard for universities to admit them.

    That’s not to say they shouldn’t do more but ultimately poverty, of aspiration as well as the traditional sort, have a major impact on progression not just to Higher Education but into the senior years of secondary school.

  2. Don’t doubt that Universities could do more but this is a much wider problem and requires more than just beating up the universities or indeed the schools.

    It is a societal problem.

    Only 7% of SIMD 20 stay on at school from S4 to S6 while national stay on rate is 52%. Added to that 44% of Scottish school leavers from SIMD20 leave with qualifications below standard grade.

    Makes it pretty hard for the universities to increase their intake from these groups.

  3. I suspect it has very little to do with “snobbery and elitism” and rather more to do with attitudes and ambition in some sections of our society. My father went to university ,having gone to school in Maryhill in the 1910s without shoes, because of the driving ambition of his widowed mother and my mother walked daily from Govan to Glasgow Uni via the Govan Ferry (where of course they met).
    They made sure all five of us did degrees at no small cost to everything else in their lives.
    Which is the key.

    The bottom line is,all things being equal, our universities enrol students from those who have achieved the necessary grades in school and who apply to them. It would be entirely wrong to do it any other way.
    It is not the universities place to start making social judgements nor are they eqipped to do so.
    This whole debate is probably politically motivated and as it emanates from the NUS ( the organisation trying to throw spanners into the Scottish Goverment’s education policies) I would say it is more than probably…

  4. For starters:
    1. Massive investment in nursery education wi properly qualified teachers.
    2. Abolish fee-paying schools. Finland did it, why no us?

  5. I think you might be underplaying what I suspect are the biggest two factors. Firstly even if schools are improving attainment, my experience, albeit from way back when, and south of the border, was that two students from two different schools might have the same results on paper, but the one will have been much better prepared to apply for university, get much better advice as to where to apply, and consequently get the place ahead of another.

    The other factor I think you are forgetting is the cost of living. This is why Glasgow does better than Edinburgh or St Andrews, in short Glasgow is cheaper to live in, and more likely to be in commuting distance of those most deprived school areas. Even in Edinburgh unviersity did everything right, can it really overcome the ridiculous cost of accomodation?

    Yes this is a problem that needs to be solved, and universities clearly have a role, but the first steps are improving guidance in schools, and making it easier for peopel to sustaint hemselves at university, ideally without having to hold down two jobs as well…

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