By Lucy Hunter Blackburn

IF we want more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university, as we should, how will that be funded? Earlier this month, The Herald estimated that the Scottish Government’s target for widening access would mean recruiting around 1,600 more students from disadvantaged backgrounds each year by 2030, with an implied annual cost of just over £50 million, if the system were to grow by that amount.

An alternative would be to change who goes to university. Discussing its proposal for lower “access thresholds” for certain applicants, the Scottish Government’s Commission on Widening Access declared itself “mindful” of possible “concerns about the displacement of other applicants .... however, if we are serious about achieving a fairer Scotland, this will require some movement across the system and a breaking down of entrenched patterns of advantage”.

Loading article content

The commission’s language of fairness is seductive. It’s more questionable, however, whether displacement would in fact break down “entrenched advantage”. The most privileged will not necessarily be the ones who take the hit. Competition for places in Scotland is already tight. If more of the existing places are set aside for widening access, applicants with the strongest exam results will continue to be best placed to succeed in competing for the ones which are left. Step forward the children of the professional classes, the privately-educated, and those whose parents can most easily afford the catchment of high-achieving state schools such as Jordanhill, Mearns Castle or Boroughmuir.

The applicants most vulnerable to displacement will not be these young people, but those from less academically intense schools and from families with less experience of higher education, but who do not meet the widening access criteria. There are already signs in the Ucas figures that young people from areas which already have relatively high levels of university participation have been less affected by the increased competition for places than those from areas where levels of participation are more middling. Further, the Scottish Government’s access policy is aimed at present at those who come from the most disadvantaged 40 per cent of postcodes. But in 2014-15, almost half of those on the lowest rate of Young Student Bursary, with family incomes below £17,000, lived outside these areas.

There are some safety valves in the system which the Scottish Government may be hoping to exploit. At present, the number of 18-year-olds is falling, and is due to do so for a few years more. However, to date the fall has been more than offset by a rise in application rates, and by 2030 the number of 18-year-olds will be back up at the current level.

Some courses already only recruit the highest-scoring applicants, and will not or cannot easily expand. Some candidates displaced from these might go instead to Russell Group universities elsewhere in the UK, rather than seek an alternative course in Scotland. Recent research suggests that young people from better-off families in Scotland are already more willing to look south and are less deterred by the prospect of taking out a loan for fees, to be repaid later pro rata earnings. So some middle class displacement from the Scottish system may occur, but probably not on a large scale.

More substantially, the number of EU students in Government-funded places is much larger than the number of extra places needed to deal with the plans to widen access. The Scottish Government is currently focusing its attention on remaining engaged with the EU. However, in March 2011 the then Cabinet Secretary for Education, Michael Russell MSP, now leading for the Scottish Government on Brexit, told the Scottish Parliament that “I have long had concerns about the subsidy we pay for EU students … so I intend to explore further, within the boundaries of European law, the possibility of reducing this”. The Scottish Government has guaranteed to continue free tuition for those EU students who are in the system when the UK leaves the EU. But ministers and officials are unlikely to have missed the longer-term potential to reduce the pressure on government-funded places, should EU law cease to be relevant.

So Brexit, however unwelcome to the Scottish Government in other ways, may yet come to its rescue here. If not, however, its commitment to widening access will mean some difficult decisions, within which reliance on displacement, far from “breaking down entrenched advantage”, would risk entrenching it further.

Lucy Hunter Blackburn is a researcher into student funding at the University of Edinburgh