Are Scottish universities turning away students from deprived backgrounds?

“While more youngsters from our least well-off communities are now going to university, the numbers are still far too low.” – Nicola Sturgeon 

Students from the 40% most deprived areas (SIMD40) in Scotland account for only 30% of the total student population. Only 14% come from the 20% most deprived areas (SIMD20). Despite there being no tuition fees in Scotland, the Higher Education Statistics Agency has indicated that Scotland has the lowest level of university access from vulnerable communities in the UK.

In 2012 St Andrews University claimed only 2-3% of school-leavers from our most deprived areas get good enough grades to win places at elite universities. They’d know, in 2011 they admitted only 14 students (yes, 14!) from SIMD20 areas. In 2012, the SNP Government accepted the target St Andrews set themselves to improve on this – an extra 6 students (yes, 6!).

The analysis provided to the SNP Government by St Andrews University is quite insightful:  “In publishing a new target to increase its annual intake of students from SIMD20 areas by 45%, St Andrews said that it had faced a stark choice – lower its academic standards significantly or live with continuing criticism for slow but steady progress to recruit more students from the most deprived areas.”.

What was the SNP Government doing? Keep in mind that all the data showed that a lack of suitably qualified students coming from deprived areas was the problem. The logical response would perhaps have been to invest in education from pre-school to high school? Nope, instead the SNP mandated universities to accept more students from deprived areas. Those that failed to do this, despite the lack of supply of students, would suffer “financial penalties where insufficient progress is made“.

So where would universities find these students? Keep in mind that Scottish students from deprived areas who do achieve university entry-level qualifications at school are more likely to go to university than their more advantaged peers – 37%-40% of all pupils that satisfy entry criteria from SIMD20 areas go on to university compared to an equivalent figure of only 30%-33% of all pupils from the most advantaged areas.

Universities did three things. Firstly, there is now more competition for the few students from vulnerable areas who had the entry qualifications.  Secondly, they now work harder to get more students from deprived areas to consider a university education. Thirdly, universities have lowered their intake scores for deprived areas. In some cases students are accepted on to courses where they did not meet the entry standard.

What’s the result? The number of students attending university from SIMD20 backgrounds increased by 0.7% last year (yes, 0.7%!) to 14%, but the improvement since 2011 is just under 5%. Not good enough.

To make serious progress, we must do what we should always have done –  invest in education from pre-school to high school. Back in 2012 St Andrews university told the SNP Government what we all know to be true: “Scotland now needs a wide societal effort to build a much more resilient culture of attainment, beginning in the nursery years, and it is time to stop demonising higher education for poor progression rates“.

We must  invest in our most vulnerable communities. Above all else, we must reverse SNP cuts to teacher numbers and education spending. Only by doing this can we reverse the decline in literacy and numeracy we have seen in Scotland’s schools. This will give the next generation of Scots the grades they need to get to university and ensure they reach their full potential.

It is time for action. As Kezia Dugdale said last week: The SNP have spent the last eight years tapping their pencil and staring into space on educational inequality. Parents are anxious, teachers are over-worked and stressed. Students are losing out.

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