A former First Minister has urged the Scottish Government to establish a special unit focused solely on social mobility if the country is to rid itself of its reputation as one of the most unequal societies in western Europe.
Henry McLeish, who led the Scottish Executive between 2000- 01, told Holyrood a new driving force was needed if issues of inequality are to emerge from the margins of politics.
The call comes after figures released last week by the National Union of Students (NUS) in Scotland revealed that students from the poorest backgrounds continue to face stumbling blocks gaining access to some of the country’s top universities.
Last month, the UK Government’s independent reviewer on social mobility and former health secretary for Labour, Alan Milburn, pointed to “growing public concern” that social mobility across Britain has become “stagnant for far too long”.
The recent disclosures represent a wake-up call to Scotland, said McLeish, that “we cannot continue to talk a good story about inequality and do very little about it”.
Speaking to Holyrood, McLeish, who serves as chair of the recentlymerged City of Glasgow College board, said: “One of the things that I would like to suggest is that within this government we need to have a unit or a driving force which is looking closely at social mobility, social justice and economic inequality.
“We need to build on the Milburn report which has recently highlighted the problems in medicine. And we simply need to invest more. And it doesn’t matter whether there’s austerity or recession, education and learning are too important lifestyle influences that we cannot afford this situation.” According to figures obtained by NUS Scotland via Freedom of Information requests, St Andrews University admitted 13 students from a total of 7,370 undergraduates in the academic year before last, while the University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh recruited 51 and 91 students compared to overall undergraduate student populations of 12,195 and 17,570 respectively.
However, McLeish refused to apportion wholesale blame to institutions within the higher education sector, calling for a greater emphasis on earlier investment in pre-school, primary and secondary provision rather than top-down targets.
He added: “We have a culture in Scotland which is always seeking to apportion blame for one thing or another. Now, that can be healthy but it can be cynical.
“We cannot blame the universities for what is happening and if we want to do something significant about it we’ve got to learn from more equal countries, like Scandinavia, like Germany, where these issues have been a part of their DNA. But in Scotland and England, we are really way off the mark as far as taking inequality seriously.