For many young people from poor backgrounds the idea of becoming a doctor, a lawyer or a top accountant seems as unrealistic as travelling to another planet.
The prospect of amassing debt over their years of study is a major disincentive, yet a good degree in a subject such as medicine or law is likely to lead to a highly-paid professional career.
Courses in these subjects are in high demand and tend to be taught at universities which demand high entrance qualifications and have very low numbers of students from the most deprived areas of the country. This is not only unfair and unhealthy, the waste of potential is a serious brake on the economy.
Among a variety of attempts to dismantle, or at least reduce, the barrier for young people from poor backgrounds by the Scottish Government and the universities, is the Access To The Professions scheme. Its purpose is to increase the number of Scottish students from deprived areas entering the professions which have increasingly become the preserve of the middle class.
The results are deeply disappointing and must raise questions about how the £1.8m funding is being spent. As The Herald reveals today, the initiative will deliver an increase of only 5% in the number of students from the 40% most deprived areas entering courses leading to the professions.
Just 23 extra medical students, 29 lawyers, six architects, five vets and three dentists are recruited annually across the country from the 40% most deprived areas in Scotland. Any increase is welcome but the small numbers reflect the reality that on some courses fewer that 10% of students are from the poorest areas and illustrates starkly the extent of the work still be done.
Universities are under pressure to make courses more accessible to a wider social mix but, as The Herald revealed last month, St Andrews, Aberdeen and Edinburgh had recruited extremely low levels of students from the poorest backgrounds.
There has been considerable debate about how social and educational background can be taken into account to recognise the difficulties faced by pupils from schools where few go on to university when offering places. The benefit of lowering entrance qualifications for some applicants has to be balanced against the high drop-out rates of students from deprived areas in institutions with less rigorous entry requirements.
The universities are right to argue that a different approach is required at a much earlier stage in education. Low-performing schools must raise their game and suggestions that the most successful teachers should work in the most challenging areas should be acted on. But teachers will be swimming against the tide without a change in attitude in the wider community.
It need not cost a lot of money. At Springburn Academy in Glasgow, when senior pupils with potential were paired with retired graduates as volunteer mentors, they gained advice, encouragement and qualifications. Medics Against Violence, an initiative by surgeons to bring home to young people the horrific consequences of violence, has extended into supporting pupils from difficult backgrounds to study medicine, dentistry and nursing. As one of the founders says: "Sometimes people from a more deprived background, where they have a first-hand knowledge of the problems people face, make the best doctors."
By abolishing tuition fees, the Scottish Government has made a powerful statement about access to higher education. The universities are widening access through summer schools and preparatory courses. It is time that every pupil in every school got the message.
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