Things not what they seem

September 5, 1997

Would devolution aid Scottish higher education? Was Dearing right about Scottish participation rates and medicine?

THE DEARING report argues that the Scottish model of higher education delivers higher levels of participation. Its companion, the Garrick report, suggests that the Scottish system may also be more socially open. Dearing holds out the Scottish model as a template for the development of the United Kingdom's system. The evidence supporting these views, however, requires more systematic attention.

Firstly, in relation to the relative levels of participation in higher education in the UK and its component countries, a footnote in Garrick points out that the age participation index, which is the basis for these views, is calculated differently in Scotland and other parts of the UK. The former version includes first-time entrants to university under the age of 21 who, though Scottish-domiciled, take a place outside Scotland expressed as a ratio of the number of 17-year-olds in Scotland in the preceding year.

Additional grounds for scepticism come from another table in Dearing that shows, age for age, that participation levels are higher in England except for age 17 and under, where the level is 0.29 per cent, compared to 12.88 per cent in Scotland. The alleged differences between Scotland and the rest of Britain may thus have to do with students' educational trajectories at 17 and the differing structures and definitions of higher education in the various educational systems.

My analysis shows that full-time educational participation is higher in England and Wales than in Scotland in each year in the age range 16 to 30 among women and among all men except at age 21. Further analysis indicates that the incidence of post-school qualifications among the younger elements of the Scottish population shows that they are no more likely than the population of England and Wales to have achieved a first or higher university degree. In the population categories aged 23-40 the relevant figure for England and Wales is consistently higher than that for Scotland.

It would seem, then, that the claim of higher participation levels in higher education in Scotland is not proven. The most plausible interpretation of the evidence is that the differential structure of educational awards in Scotland and the rest of the UK leads to relatively more 17-year-olds being classified as taking higher education courses in Scotland, and that more Scots leave the system with sub-degree qualifications. So part of the difference in ostensible levels of higher education participation is due to the A level work of 17-year-old students in England and Wales not being classed as higher education, whereas degree or sub-degree work of 17-year-old students in Scotland is so classified.

Dearing looks to Scotland as a model for providing more higher education for the rest of the UK in the future, but suggests that it might be at sub-degree level. My analysis concurs with this last point. If universities outside Scotland are to expand on this model, then it would be to sub-degree awards that they should direct their attention.

What of the view that the Scottish system of higher education is more socially open? Data cited by Dearing supporting this belief relies on the social background of the 50 per cent of the Scottish university population who enter university from secondary school. This data, indicating much lower participation rates for social classes I and II, the professional class groups, in Scotland compared to Britain as a whole, is the basis of the argument that the Scottish system provides more equal access. The suggestion is that somehow participation by the Scottish non-manual social classes has been restrained compared to the situation in the rest of the UK.

This is sociologically very puzzling, since there is little supporting evidence from other aspects of Scottish society. The apparent lower level of Scottish professional class entry to Scottish university may be explained by the 20 per cent or so of Scottish school leavers from professional homes who annually leave Scotland to attend English universities. Data on differentials in entry to higher education by the economic prosperity level of postcode areas in Scotland echoes the large disparities in access by social neighbourhood type found in comparable English research reported by Dearing. The fact, again reported in Dearing, that only 15 per cent of 18-year-olds in Glasgow attend university, compared to 28 per cent in Scotland as a whole, is further clear evidence of a major class divide in access to university education in Scotland. Clearly, more systematic inquiry into these issues is needed.

Norman Bonny

Head of the department of psychology and sociology, Napier University, Edinburgh.

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