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Widening access to our universities

First the good news.

In response to demands to widen access, St Andrews University announces its aim of increasing the number of students it recruits from Scotland's most deprived areas by 45%. Now the bad news. As the university took in just 14 such students last year, it will hit that target by admitting just six more.

The university admits the modesty of the target but blames the poor exam results achieved by schools in Scotland's 20 most deprived areas. (An FoI request revealed that, of the near 9000 pupils in fifth year in such locations last year, just 220 chalked up three or more As at Higher.) The implicit message is that institutions such as St Andrews should not be demonised for poor progression rates when the blame lies elsewhere. And it claims more ambitious targets would involve lowering its academic standards "significantly". The implication is that, if it were to show more flexibility in considering the applications of students from difficult backgrounds, such students would merely fall behind and drop out.

This response is disappointing. It suggests St Andrews is being forced into widening access.

This is a complex issue. Scotland's oldest and most prestigious university must seem a bit like Little Oxbridge-on-Sea to pupils attending open days and, if home is Easterhouse or Govan, it is easy to understand them thinking it was not for them.

It is up to the university to challenge that. In fairness, St Andrews does operate outreach programmes, including using student ambassadors on its Reach and First Chances programmes.

However, a recent report from the National Union of Students Scotland concluded that institutions such as St Andrews need to try a lot harder. Access-widening programmes need to be scaled up and focused on the poorest areas. Bright students from difficult backgrounds need to be sought out and mentored, to give them at least a fair chance in a field where perhaps more mediocre but well-connected and intensively coached students can produce impressive personal statements and good exam results. Universities need to invest more in spotting young people's potential, regardless of their postcode.

The statement from St Andrews claims pupils with fewer than three As at Higher struggle to keep up. Perhaps they need more support. At Glasgow University the progression rate of students from deprived backgrounds who are allowed in with lower grades after completing a tough entry course compare well with those of other students. Yesterday The Herald reported how Strathclyde University has invested in a Maths Skills Support Centre to help first-year students struggling with the maths component of their course work. Last week there was a report about how the University of Dundee was laying on facilities for the teaching of Advanced Highers so that pupils from poorer areas whose schools do not offer such choices are not disadvantaged. Instead of blaming inequalities in the Scottish public education system, all universities need to work harder to be part of the solution to the problem of restricted access.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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