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Access to universities needs widened further

The progress on widening access to university in Scotland has been too slow for too long, but at least it is heading in the right direction.

The latest figures show that in 2012/13, 23.2% of students who began a degree in Scottish higher education came from the 40% most deprived postcode areas. In 2011/12, it was 22.5%.

That does represent a rise, and any rise is welcome, but the frustration among students, lecturers and politicians that the increase is not higher is understandable. UCU Scotland, which represents university staff, says there is little cause for celebration in the figures while NUS Scotland says that, while any increase in the numbers of students coming from deprived communities is welcome, the figures show there has been little progress.

In response, Alastair Sim, the director of Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, does make an important point: the additional access places created by the Scottish Government have yet to come into effect and Mr Sim believes that when they do, there will be a step change in the data on students who come from deprived backgrounds.

We will find out next year if he is right, although the 700 extra places are not a panacea. They are certainly a good idea and a commonsense approach that recognises it would be unfair to widen access for some students while narrowing it for others, but the problem comes longer term. Will the Scottish Government continue to fund the extra places? So far, it has refused to be drawn, but whatever it does, the extra places will only be sustainable and fair if they come with the funding they need.

The support of the universities will also be critical and while there has been some success, many institutions, particularly the older universities, have looked resistant. Many assert that applicants without sufficiently high entrance qualifications are likely to drop out and while that may be true in some cases, the solution is to offer more support to students from poorer backgrounds who, with guidance and help, often demonstrate higher potential and greater commitment.

This continuing support will be a critical factor in the ongoing attempts to widen access, and some universities are better at it than others. St Andrews University in particular has been singled out by the NUS among others as not doing enough so the increase at that university in students from poorer backgrounds from 8.5% to 11.6% is particularly welcome.

In the sector as a whole though, the situation remains depressing. Scotland still sends a smaller proportion of pupils from lower socio-economic groups to university than England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Today's figures have marginally improved that, but it is not enough and the rate of improvement is too slow.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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