One of the main topics in recent discussions about higher education in Scotland has concerned access to universities by students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For a country with strong support for principles of social solidarity, the higher education system has a surprisingly patchy record for social inclusivity. According to figures published recently by the National Union of Students Scotland, in only two of Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions is the proportion of students from disadvantaged areas roughly equivalent to their share of the national population.
These 2011 figures look even more stark when considered as numbers of individuals: eight institutions have fewer than 100 students from deprived areas (as designated by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation).
This situation forms the backdrop to recent debates about the Scottish government’s Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill, which, among other things, proposes the introduction of “widening access agreements” between the Scottish Funding Council and universities.
There is no disagreement in principle between all the key players about the desirability of widening access. In 2012, the principals of all Scottish universities signed up to a statement of intent, which included the following personal pledge: “I am committed to delivering progress in the next few years and, in so doing, contributing to an improvement in the university sector in Scotland’s record on widening access and retention.” Reflecting this promise, universities have improved their performance on access over the past two years, and last month made a further commitment to expand the sector-wide intake of disadvantaged students by a further 7 places. They have also increased the number of students entering university from further education colleges.
Whether all these steps will ensure that Scotland’s higher education system is sufficiently inclusive remains to be seen. Although the principle of access is widely accepted, there are also occasional references to problems associated with efforts to improve it. In November 2012, the University of St Andrews warned “that it expects to face a considerable and continuing challenge to widen access, because so few young people from Scotland’s most deprived areas are achieving basic university entry grades”. It added that it was “time to stop demonising higher education for poor progression rates”.
Access for the disadvantaged is significant for it ensures that higher education does not reinforce social or economic elitism. When I chaired the review of higher education governance in Scotland in 2011-12, we repeatedly heard evidence from stakeholders who emphasised the idea of education as part of a democratic process that involved, or should involve, the entire society.
To counteract the ties between the circumstances of a person’s birth and the likelihood of their progression to higher education, universities must form partnerships with schools in disadvantaged areas and track young people from an early age to ensure that those who show potential are prepared for higher education opportunities. Furthermore, a successful access scheme must support students once they have entered university.
All this costs money, and it is arguable that Scotland’s access infrastructure is not yet what it needs to be, and that far more resources, both in money and in people, need to be made available. But there are also signs that the key players - the government, institutions and students themselves - are increasingly sharing the same agenda and showing the same determination. That is a good start.