Sir John Arbuthnott, principal of Strathclyde University, who recently led a review of Scottish National Health Service spending, believes his innovative method of measuring deprivation could offer a blueprint for higher education.
The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has been wrestling with how best to fund higher education for students from deprived backgrounds. It recently announced that students from under-represented groups will attract a 5 per cent funding premium.
Sir John said his independent review had a task to ensure the fair allocation of resources. Measuring need alone is not enough. It has to be determined whether and how deprivation affects need.
Sir John created the "Arbuthnott index" to help distribute healthcare funds. It includes mortality rates among under-65s, unemployment rates, the proportion of pensioners claiming income support and households with two or more indicators of deprivation. The index does not directly measure healthcare needs, but measures the factors that influence these needs.
"I think some of the indicators we are currently using as benchmarks, for example recruitment rates from deprived areas, are fine but pretty distant proxies. To get closer to the nature of the problem, you would have to do more rigorous work on the indicators."
Sir John, a member of the Dearing committee and its Scottish group, the Garrick committee, says the Dearing model, stacking loans and grants in favour of the poorest, tackled the needs of the most deprived areas. The committees' disappointment was "enormous" when the government went down the "wrong road" of up-front tuition fees, he said.
Following the Cubie report, the Scottish Executive axed up-front tuition fees and introduced means-tested bursaries. Sir John hopes the rest of the United Kingdom will follow Scotland's example.