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A lesson in how best to widen university access

Everyone in higher education can agree on the importance of widening access to Scottish universities, not least because Scotland sends a smaller proportion of pupils from lower ­ socio-economic groups to university than England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But progress has been slow and many institutions, particularly some of the older universities, have looked resistant to change.

A new scheme by Glasgow University is a spectacular exception. The university is sending staff to secondary schools in the west of Scotland to speak to pupils in first, second and third year about their future prospects. The aim is to get the pupils thinking about university and what they need to do to get there.

The scheme is ground-breaking in one important respect. Universities have always gone into schools but traditionally they have spoken to pupils much later, when they are sitting Highers. They have done this despite the fact that fourth-year pupils have chosen which subjects to study and may already have made decisions that make it hard, or impossible, for them to get to university.

The Glasgow project is radically different because it is talking to pupils aged 11, 12 and 13 and Jonathan Jones, the man charged with widening access at Glasgow University, is right to describe it as a step-change in trying to reach pupils from poorer backgrounds.

The university deserves credit for the initiative, which it has backed with £400,000 of its own money, although perhaps it should come as no surprise from an institution that has already proven itself among the best for widening access.

Crucially, it has also reformed the way it recruits students and looks at the postcode of an application to determine whether it should reduce the qualifications needed to offer a place. This is controversial, with some considering lower offers to be evidence of dumbing down, but there is little point in universities going into deprived areas and inspiring pupils to apply to university without also acknowledging that bright, gifted pupils from such areas can sometimes face barriers to achieving the qualifications demanded. The good news for universities is that, when offered encouragement and support, students from poorer backgrounds often demonstrate higher potential and greater commitment.

Where Glasgow University will have to be cautious is in keeping a close watch on what happens to the students who benefit from the scheme. Has it been worthwhile for them to go to university? Or could it be that other options, including vocational courses, could have been better for them?

For those who should be going to university but do not because of their background, the Glasgow University scheme is undoubtedly an improvement - although it should be the beginning of the process of change, not the end. The ultimate aim should be to make the Glasgow University scheme the norm rather than the exception; perhaps one day it will be taken for granted that gifted children can go to university in Scotland as a matter of routine.

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