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Universities face legal action by displaced students

SCOTTISH universities face legal action if middle class students are pushed out by a rise in numbers from deprived backgrounds, lecturers claim.

The warning comes as the government presses ahead with new legislation to ensure higher education institutions make greater efforts to widen access.

Under the plans, more use will be made of  so-called contextualised admissions, where a student’s background is looked at as well as their exam results.

Although the Government has given universities extra money for 2013/14 to pay for more than 700 places on widening access schemes, the Scottish Liberal Democrats warned last month “many” Scottish students could be displaced in future.

Lecturing union UCU Scotland said universities should be protected from legal action by disgruntled students in a written submission to the Scottish Parliament’s education committee – which is scrutinising the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill.

The submission states: “We have called for greater emphasis on contextualisation in admissions, but this can be problematic. There may be a need for a statutory duty to protect institutions and, in particular, admissions staff from libellous claims.

“The proposals only legislate to force institutions to broaden access and it is not clear that this alone will protect institutions.”

Mary Senior, the UCU’s Scottish official, added: “This might mean that two candidates with identical grades fare differently when their family background or the school they attend are taken into account.

“We’re calling for support for staff who are taking these decisions, particularly if admissions staff are challenged by a student unhappy with outcomes.”

The committee also heard concerns that changes to the governance of colleges could result in the loss of their charitable status, worth some £50 million annually to the sector.

Under the law, an organisation cannot be a charity if the Scottish Government has the power to influence key appointments, as will be the case under the proposed legislation.

Colleges Scotland, which represents college principals, said: “The Scottish Government has given assurances that charitable status will not be affected by these provisions, but given the extent of change, and new ministerial powers,  we would welcome the committee seeking clarification from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Admissions decisions are absolutely a matter for universities. Universities have admissions policies in place which are clear on the basis for considering applications.”

Decisions can already made on the basis of more than just grades, with personal statements, references, relevant work experience and interviews all being considered when appropriate.

Widening access does not change that and does not over-ride the responsibility of the Universities to conform with relevant legislation.

“The Scottish Public Service Ombudsman can consider complaints in relation to universities if the individual has exhausted the complaints process of the institution.”
 
 
It has also backed its plan to introduce a cap on fees charged by universities here to students from the rest of the UK.
The statement comes after The Herald yesterday revealed that a group representing the chairs of university’s ruling Courts want the £9000 cap scrapped.
The limit was introduced to ensure a level playing field with universities in the rest of the UK, which can also charge fees of up to £9000.
But the Committee of Scottish Chairs, which represents the governing bodies of 12 universities in Scotland, believes institutions should be allowed to set their own maximum fee – raising fears of an increase.
A government spokeswoman said: “The legislative cap in the Bill will ensure consistency in future and help protect students from around the UK who wish to study in Scotland.
“Admissions decisions are absolutely a matter for universities.  
“The universities have admissions policies in place which are clear on the basis for considering applications. Decisions can already made on the basis of more than just grades, with personal statements, references, relevant work experience and interviews all being considered when appropriate.  Widening access does not change that and does not over-ride the responsibility of the Universities to conform with relevant legislation.
“The Scottish Public Service Ombudsman can consider complaints in relation to universities if the individual has exhausted the complaints process of the institution.”

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