In 2009, in one of her first interviews after taking over as principal of St Andrews University, Dr Louise Richardson spoke to The Herald about the importance of attracting more students from poorer backgrounds saying she was "utterly committed" to widening participation and pledging money to fund new bursaries from the university's wider campaign to raise £100 million to mark its 600th anniversary.
This "utter commitment" was somewhat tempered when I asked Ms Richardson how much the university intended to spend on new bursaries and how many more students from deprived backgrounds she wanted to attract. The gist of her answer was that setting targets was not the right way to proceed because I would simply return a year or so later to pass judgement on how well the university had fared against its aspirations. So much for accountability.
If the university did not wish to attract too much scrutiny of its policies on access three years ago, it is certainly firmly in the spotlight today. Earlier this summer, St Andrews made headlines around the world after The Herald revealed just 14 of the students admitted last year were from the 20% most deprived backgrounds in Scotland. The figure was given greater significance because Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, has made widening access one of the conditions of the public funding universities receive, with a particular focus on those from the most deprived households. As a result, every university has to sign an outcome agreement with the Scottish Funding Council setting out future priorities. On Monday, St Andrews published its outcome agreement, which, for the first time, has pushed the institution into setting a target for access against which its progress can be judged. For many, the institution's ambition has once again been called into question after it agreed to recruit just six additional students from the most deprived backgrounds in Scotland, along with a number of other pledges. "Minuscule by any standards" was the response from student group NUS Scotland, although others have seen the commitment as a crucial first step.
Of equal interest was the public pronouncements the university made about its progress on access thus far and the outcry over the pace of change there, which it has characterised as the "demonisation" of the institution. Stephen Magee, vice-principal with responsibility for admissions at St Andrews, made some telling points in his official response. "We believe it requires a concerted effort on health, employment, better housing and a stronger culture of attainment at all levels of Scottish education to equip young people with the grades they need to gain entry and to succeed at university," he said. But, once more ensconced in his ivory tower, he went on to raise the spectre that letting in pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds was somehow akin to dumbing down, saying: "We know that we could play the political game and change these figures overnight by lowering our entry grades, but experience tells us that we would simply be admitting these kids to fail, and that would be utterly dishonest."
It is clear much more must be done across society to ensure pupils from all backgrounds have access to the secure environments, quality teaching and the breadth of courses that will equip them with the skills necessary to go to university. But universities themselves must also do more to seek out pupils who would benefit from a university education, but who, through no fault of their own, may not get the required grades. Why should the spotless exam record of an applicant from a supportive family who has gone to private school or a high-performing state secondary and who has been extensively tutored be seen as evidence of a potential to succeed at university over a candidate who has been starved of opportunity at home and school, but has still secured a good set of Higher results?
Fortunately, there are some universities in Scotland who have long recognised the principle that exam results do not tell you everything you need to know about a pupil. For the last decade, Glasgow University has run an initiative called Top-Up which seeks out talented pupils from state secondary schools with historically low levels of participation in higher education. These pupils are given access to the university to familiarise themselves with the institution and take part in an academic programme which allows Glasgow University staff to assess their potential for themselves, rather than relying on a set of exam results. Crucially, those that pass the course are allowed to drop as much as two grades in their Highers results and still be admitted. This is not unfair on the ranks of middle class students who will be joining them at university. It is a small step in the fight to redress the imbalance of opportunity embedded in our society which St Andrews has itself pointed out. And the good news is that it works. Far from "admitting kids to fail", research by Glasgow has shown progression rates for Top-Up students are actually better than their counterparts from state schools in more prized catchment areas. It is an initiative that every university in Scotland must adopt if they are to be taken seriously on widening access.