As somebody who grew up in one of the most deprived areas in Scotland, I welcome any measure which gives students from poor background a fairer chance of accessing university. Indeed, as somebody who works in a Scottish university and runs one of the UK’s top engineering programmes I know the challenges students from poor backgrounds face.
The problem universities face, however, is that schools serving deprived areas are simply not producing enough students to enable universities to meet the aspirations of SNP Government. A situation which is set to worsen if the real drop in literacy and numeracy standards in Scotland is evidenced in S5 and S6 exams results.
Universities have responded to this in three ways. Firstly, there is now more competition for the few students from vulnerable areas who have 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 to below the minimum acceptable. This approach has had some success, but access to university in Scotland still lags far behind the rest of the UK and the drop-out rate is a challenge.
Whilst Universities Scotland has announced a welcome enhancement to this approach, it does not address the real problem – schools in deprived areas are not producing sufficient numbers of students which meet the entry criteria.
The real solution is obvious – we must invest in our most vulnerable communities. In the short-term, the SNP Government’s significant cuts to the grant for poor students must be reversed. Above all else, however, we must reverse SNP Government’s 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.