On paper, it seems straightforward:
the Scottish Government provides universities with the money for 727 extra places for students from deprived backgrounds, so all universities need do is go out and recruit them. Simple. What more failsafe way could there be of ensuring more students from disadvantaged areas get the chance to obtain a university degree?
Unfortunately, widening access is proving to be more complicated than that. There is good news overall, with 80% of these extra places, announced last autumn, being filled. The Scottish Government made the places available halfway through the application process for this year's intake, so it is not entirely surprising that some remain vacant. What is surprising is that one university, Aberdeen, has not managed to fill a single one of its additional 75 places.
Last year, The Herald revealed that among Scotland's universities, Aberdeen recruited the second-lowest proportion of students from the poorest backgrounds in 2010/11, taking only 51 such students. St Andrews performed even worse in that survey, but figures show that it has now filled all this year's extra 20 places for such students.
Why is Aberdeen University struggling when others are not? Aberdeen has never been an elitist institution. It has a proud history of strong local and regional links, having for decades been regarded by many as the university of the north-east and indeed the Highlands.
It is not that Aberdeen has recruited no students from the most deprived backgrounds. It has recruited 140, but the fact that nearly half of its students come from the local area where there are relatively few deprived postcodes - Aberdeen itself has only 2% unemployment - presents this university with a challenge that some others do not have. It is also in competition for such students with the north-east's other university, Robert Gordon. Universities have argued that the way students' socio economic background is determined, using deprived postcodes identified in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, excludes youngsters who may have experienced deprivation but do not live in a postcode identified as deprived. Aberdeen wants to take such students into account.
Aberdeen University recruits all over Scotland, of course, but for young people from deprived backgrounds in the central belt who are considering the big step of attending university, the perceived high cost of living in Aberdeen, with its reputation for oil wealth, coupled with its distance from the central belt, cannot help.
What is clear, nonetheless, is that Aberdeen University must find a way of filling its extra places next year. Other universities have succeeded, with Glasgow deserving a special mention for recruiting the most students from the poorest areas, and St Andrews for improving its performance. This is essential at a time when free tuition for university students is being called into question. If free tuition is seen as a middle-class benefit, it will not survive as a policy. That would harm students from families on modest incomes the most.
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