War on gulf between rich and poor

July 10, 1998

HIGHER education should reach all those parts of society it has not previously reached. There should be no place in Scotland where people assume it is not for them.

The case for this policy is founded on compelling arguments of social equity. In the United Kingdom 79 per cent of young people from the wealthiest families go into higher education, compared with only 12 per cent from the least well-off. We cannot build either an economically successful country or social cohesion while such a large gulf exists.

I have asked the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to take forward initiatives on widening access, including a consideration of how they can assist local partnerships. Existing or latent partnerships will no doubt look forward with interest to the publication of research this autumn into models of good practice in wider access, which has been promoted by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Council for Industry and Higher Education.

Success in tackling social exclusion, and integral factors such as under-representation, requires a multi-agency approach. In Scotland we have begun to discuss what makes a good partnership and how such partnerships should best be developed. The good practice research should permit further action to develop sound structures.

I have also doubled access funds and made funding available for special initiatives. But there are two areas of our mainstream policy that will improve access. First, our reforms of student support are designed to assist the least well-off. Tuition fees will be means-tested so that 40 per cent of Scots will pay nothing. We have introduced a much fairer loans system where graduates will pay nothing until they earn over Pounds 10,000 a year and then a proportion of their salary, not a fixed amount every month.

No student should have anything to fear from this change. Those who bemoan the end of grants should remember that in 1980, when we had full grants, only 4 per cent of school-leavers from working-class families went into higher education.

Of course, there has been a little controversy about English, Welsh, and Northern Ireland students paying tuition fees in Scotland for their fourth year, while home students will all be exempt. Let me put this in context. Any student from a family with an income of below Pounds 16,500 will not pay any fees in any year if they come to Scotland.

The second area of change is in access to qualifications. I recently announced a pilot in Scotland to allow less well-off part-time students on degree courses to study without paying fees. This groundbreaking initiative will benefit up to 3,000 people a year, mainly on new courses designed specifically for their needs. We need to continue to encourage a variety of entry and exit points, as Dearing advised.

I was also very pleased to announce the restoration of government funding for Newbattle Abbey College, a college that provides courses targeted at those under-represented groups that have been away from education for at least two years. Wider access is equally important in further education, where it is one of the main themes of our developing strategy. We need to develop the pattern of provision so that colleges can reach out to even the remotest parts of Scotland.

In June, I announced grants totalling Pounds 1 million to help colleges widen access. Problems will be different between colleges, and a wide range of solutions will be required. For some, remote learning might be expanded and for others better targeting and marketing of provision locally might be more appropriate. I also want to see better linkages between sectors to enable easier progression to higher education from HNC or HND level.

I am also commissioning research to investigate the factors that influence participation and non-participation in further education and to identify areas where there are gaps and overlaps, or significantly higher or lower levels of access. That work will be important in helping to identify problem areas and practical solutions. I am clear that financial remedies are not sufficient on their own.

There is a fundamental need to address the problem of low expectations, particularly on the part of those whose parents have not experienced higher education, or pupils with academic potential who are vulnerable to negative peer pressure. There is a crucial need to change perceptions and raise self-esteem so that people from less well-off backgrounds realise the real benefits of higher education. Student mentors and public figures willing to act as role models can overcome negative perceptions.

Education is the best economic policy we have, and a highly trained and educated citizenry is our country's most precious possession. We cannot afford the waste in human resources involved in under-recruitment of those with potential to benefit.

Brian Wilson is Scottish Office minister for education and industry.

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