WHILE all Scottish universities are committed to offering more places to students from less affluent backgrounds, some have been notably more successful than others.
The Scottish Government must be given credit for taking a practical approach to the problem.
By funding additional places for universities to recruit students from the most deprived areas in the country, they have provided a genuine incentive for the institutions they describe as "most selective" to admit more students from poor backgrounds. The test of this policy is in how these access places have been distributed across the universities.
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The positive news is that universities were so eager to take up the offer that demand outstripped the funding available. The result is 727 extra places for students from disadvantaged areas from next autumn plus another 1020 college places for students who transfer into the second or third year of a degree course. Yet the scheme has noticeably failed to achieve its specific aim of widening access to institutions with the lowest proportion of students from poor backgrounds. Edinburgh University has the smallest take-up of access places at 0.4%, followed by St Andrews University (0.56%) and Glasgow School of Art, or GSA (0.6%). There is fierce competition for places at all three and all say admission is on merit and that applicants without sufficiently high entrance qualifications or aptitude are likely to drop out. While there is some truth in that, other institutions which guard their academic standards just as rigorously have recognised that students from disadvantaged backgrounds often demonstrate higher potential and greater commitment than more privileged applicants with slightly better grades. Glasgow University in particular has been successful in targeting potential students from deprived areas through access courses and summer schools. Under the new access programme it will provide 200 additional places plus 16 in colleges, amounting to 1.5%, the average proportion across all universities.
It is notable that GSA, Edinburgh and St Andrews are the only institutions not to enter into arrangements with colleges to enable some students to transfer after gaining further education qualifications. These will not be suitable for every course but when the universities of Dundee, Stirling and Strathclyde all accept this as an alternative route for between 50 and 80 students, it must surely be feasible for some subjects at St Andrews and Edinburgh.
It is undeniable that many people from poorer communities will not apply to these universities because they are seen as too posh. That should be anadditional, urgent reason for them to seek to widen the social mix. A start has been made with summer schools and outreach programme but these must lead on to far greater take-up of access places if all our ancient and most highly-regarded universities are to be open and welcoming to Scots of all backgrounds.