Universities have a year to prove they are open to Scotland’s poorest school-leavers Scotland has a proud history as the birthplace of universal education, but in the 400 years since John Knox’s revolutionary idea, the widespread acclaim for the values of fairness at the heart of the country’s education system hasn’t waned.
At this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, English education campaigner and journalist Melissa Benn was so impressed by Cabinet Secretary Mike Russell’s performance alongside her on a panel that she took to the webpages of the Guardian to praise Scottish education. As a visitor from ‘Planet Gove’, where market-driven solutions abound, Benn praised Scotland’s commitment to the egalitarian principle of ‘democratic intellect’, saying: “The overriding concern [is] how to improve access by poorer students to higher and further learning and keep universities free.” If she lifted the lid on the idealist rhetoric, however, Benn might find some of the statistics relative to access to university for deprived young people less praiseworthy. NUS Scotland statistics published in July this year as part of the organisation’s report, Unlocking Scotland’s Potential, found that just 12.7 per cent of university entrants in 2010-11 came from the most deprived backgrounds, a significantly lower proportion than in England. Some universities had an especially elite intake: St Andrews welcomed just 13 students from the most deprived backgrounds, or just 2.7 per cent of its intake. The avowed commitment of institutions and government to tackle the problem has thus far had little impact: in the four years since the SNP cancelled the graduate endowment, effectively making tuition free for domestic students, the number of deprived students entering university as a proportion of the total has risen just 1.1 per cent. At that rate, says NUS Scotland, it would take 40 years for students from poor backgrounds to be fairly represented in the country’s universities.
The start of the new academic year sees the implementation of the Scottish Government’s flagship proposal to try and do something about those statistics. First announced in the government paper, Putting Learners at the Centre, the new agreements, negotiated between institutions and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) will eventually see institutions sanctioned if they fail to meet the widening access targets included within. Several institutions have already signed off their agreements, which are now in the SFC’s possession, but publication will wait until the full set is complete. Legislation to support the initiative has been announced as part of the Government’s programme for the new parliamentary year.
The process of developing the agreements, by the admission of almost all involved, has been tentative: an attempt by the SFC to categorise a handful of universities as ‘widening access institutions’, based on the proportion of foreign students attending, drew the ire of campaigners and universities alike, and was dropped.
The current process of negotiating outcome agreements with individual institutions was begun in spring, after funding levels were set and offers sent to applicants. University authorities have also complained that they had insufficient time to adapt to the new regime, and that tinkering will be required over the coming year. The SFC has also played down talk of sanctions for institutions that fail to meet their agreements this year.
As for what the agreements will contain, NUS Scotland president Robin Parker says he is happy for institutions to choose whatever package of measures suit their strengths – as long as there is clear progress. “We’d be looking for every institution to lay down something that is ambitious but achievable in terms of what it can do. Every institution has to set out to make progress.” Parker also wants to see clear action plans that have been decided in consultation with students’ associations when the agreements are unveiled. “Those are the most important things, but beyond that there are other things that could be in there,” he adds, suggesting targets around articulation between further education and university, special measures in ‘hot spot’ courses, and efforts to encourage more women into STEM subjects.
Before individual measures are agreed, however, the debate over how to widen participation in higher education will first have to resolve how any progress will be measured. The Scottish Government’s preferred statistical tool is the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) measurement. SIMD divides the country into 6,505 ‘datazones’ and ranks them according to a range of socio-economic factors, producing a measurement of relative poverty that the Government claims is “consistent” and “effective” if used in the correct way. NUS Scotland’s damning access figures use a definition of ‘deprived’ based on SIMD 20 – that is, individuals living in the bottom 20 per cent of SIMD datazones. Campaigners sometimes also use SIMD 20 as shorthand for the least well-off 20 per cent of the population, because datazones have broadly consistent populations.
That is where universities cry foul. Universities Scotland says that SIMD datazones “do not function at the level of the individual”, with the system creating the potential for a very wealthy household on the periphery of a deprived area to be counted in the same way as a low-income family receiving benefits. The organisation disputes the suggestion that Scottish universities perform worse than their UK peers, claiming that once you strip out students from outside Scotland, who tend to be wealthier, the proportion of less well-off Scottish students at university is only fractionally below that of England. Open University director Dr James Miller also argues that SIMD measurements ignore other elements of the widening access agenda, for instance, increasing attendance from rural areas. “Some rural communities don’t have SIMD 20 areas within them; that skews the picture,” he says. Universities Scotland uses socio-economic class as its preferred measure, while individual institutions often cite the number of state school leavers they accept.
Parker is unmoved, however, saying that SIMD “is the best measure out there at the minute.” Those who will have to do the real work of raising aspiration and attainment in Scotland’s most deprived communities don’t dispute the size of the task they face. “It seems to take a village these days to get a young person to university,” says Sheila Paton, headteacher at Edinburgh’s Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC). If universities are going to make meaningful progress on widening access, they will need to recruit more young people from schools like WHEC, located in an area in the west of the capital surrounded by low-ranked SIMD zones. The school’s attainment levels have been transformed thanks to a new student mentoring programme, with a 1 per cent pass rate for five Standard levels three years ago rising to 21 per cent this year – but for the vast majority of pupils, university remains a foreign concept. Paton says only one student received a conditional offer to attend university last year.
“Just to move onto Highers is a big step.” The widening access impact of the improved financial settlement may be limited, with many of Paton’s students not considering going to university on financial grounds, despite the absence of tuition fees.
“A loan is something the students wouldn’t be comfortable with.” Many come from families where parents are still paid weekly, where staking your financial future on the promise of a better job four or five years in the future doesn’t seem a reasonable prospect. “That future planning, it is a middle class thing. ‘Borrow now and pay back many years later’ is something that’s still quite frightening,” Paton says.
The biggest barriers, however, are not financial but cultural – a fact confirmed not only by NUS Scotland’s findings, but government figures showing that progress on widening access since the abolition of the graduate endowment has been limited to former polytechnics. WHEC runs a ‘Fast Forward’ programme that takes S1 students on visits to university campuses, to help familiarise them with the environment and meet staff; but Paton says her staff worry that the visits can be as alienating as not going at all. Students are turned off by the university lecturers they meet who aren’t willing or able to communicate with young people at their level. “They’re not exposed to the papers, the media at home,” Paton says of her students. Circumstances at home also put them at a disadvantage when it comes to getting the support to improve grades, or take part in the kind of extracurricular, volunteering or work experience activities that universities look for alongside results.