Disadvantaged students need more than improved access, warns commissioner

Written by Tom Freeman on 24 January 2018 in News

Fair Access Commissioner Sir Peter Scott says poor students more likely to drop out or achieve less at university

Professor Sir Peter Scott's appointment - Scottish Government

Scotland's commissioner for getting more students from deprived areas into university has warned there must also be a focus on their outcomes when they get there.

In a discussion paper, Commissioner for Fair Access Professor Sir Peter Scott said students from deprived areas are more likely to drop out, struggle with their studies and end up with less prestigious jobs than their more privileged peers.

New targets for Scottish universities mean they must enrol 20 per cent of entrants from the most deprived 20 per cent of the country by 2030.

But Scott has suggested there should also be targets on outcomes, as well as calling for investment in student support.

"Fair access is not enough," Scott said. "Fair outcomes are just as important. Difficult as it is to increase the proportion of entrants from the most deprived social backgrounds, it is more difficult to make sure they succeed - which means making sure they don’t drop out, and they get good degrees and graduate jobs."

The report shows students getting a 2:1 degree or better was 15 per cent lower from the poorest communities. They were also less likely to achieve an honours degree in the first place.

Scott said these students have less of a support network and suffered from discrimination so deeply entrenched university staff don't recognise it.

"Not so many enjoy the positive reinforcement of families and peers that helps stop more socially privileged students dropping out," he said. 

"Faced with competing social, and maybe financial pressures, they need more resilience to stay the course. Far fewer have the ‘middle-class’ habits, and actual social connections, that smooth the paths into professional jobs."

Universities minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said she "accepted the challenge" laid out in the report.

“This report brings in to sharp focus the extent and the range of the barriers which result in students from the most deprived backgrounds experiencing inequality at every step of their journey through university and into adult life," she said.

Conservative Shadow Education Secretary Liz Smith said: “Rather than setting artificial targets the policy focus should be on ensuring that there is sufficient bursary support for those students from the poorest backgrounds. “Although a little progress has been made in Scotland, we still lag behind other parts of the UK when it comes to bursaries, something that has resulted from the weakness in the SNP’s funding structures for higher education.”

Scottish Labour's education spokesman Iain Gray said the report highlighted the fact retention rates have got worse.

“While the Commissioner identifies a number of factors where students need further support, a key one has to be financial support to live while studying," he said.

“Ever since the SNP cut grants and bursaries we have argued that the current system is weighted too heavily towards loans. Today in Scotland those who start with the least end up owing the most. That’s unfair and stops far too many young people gaining a degree. Labour supports free tuition but it has to be backed up by proper cost of living student support.”

NUS Scotland President Luke Humberstone ​welcomed Scott's call for more support for students.

"We know that the current support system is broken – forcing the poorest higher education students into the most debt, and giving further education students no guarantee of support. Equally, we know that the number of students trying to access mental health services is increasing – but provision of services across our college and university campuses is patchy."

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