Scottish Funding Council report: fall in university students from poorest areas

Written by Tom Freeman on 30 May 2018 in News

Drop in numbers of poorest students comes after universities were told to go “further and faster” on widening access

St Andrews University - Stuart Caie

Fewer students from the most deprived parts of Scotland are entering university, according to the latest Scottish Funding Council report on widening access.

The figures show 13.8 per cent of entrants from the poorest 20 per cent of areas in Scotland started full-time degrees.

Although this is only a small decrease from 14 per cent in the previous year, universities have been told by the Scottish Government to accelerate widening access to meet its targets.

The target set by the Commission for Widening Access is for students from the poorest backgrounds to make up 20 per cent of entrants by 2030.

In December, Scotland’s Commissioner for Fair Access, Professor Sir Peter Scott, said universities and government "must be bolder" on widening access to meet the ambition.

Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science Shirley-Anne Somerville had said she expected progress to go “further, faster” last year.

Responding to the latest report, she said the number would provide “a baseline” for future improvement.

“These figures are a stark reminder of why this government was right to take the action we did on widening access,” she said.

“They show that in the four years up to 2016-17 nothing had changed and, on their own, universities were not making improvement in increasing the percentage of students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas.”

Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Liz Smith said: “The SNP will never be able to widen access to university until it comprehensively addresses schools’ attainment problems, narrowing subject choices and access to highers and advanced highers for those in the more deprived areas.

“The SNP are obsessed with artificial targets at college and university which are clearly misplaced and aren’t working.”

Alastair Sim, director of principal’s body Universities Scotland, said the system of identifying poorer students by geographical area masked good work by the sector.

“The slight drop in the number of university entrants from the poorest areas of Scotland by 0.2 per cent will be disappointing to those working incredibly hard to widen access to university but there should not be too much emphasis placed on the SIMD metric,” he said.

“There’s a time lag on the data and the Funding Council repeatedly makes the point that today’s figures reflect practice before universities responded to challenges from the Commission on Widening Access.

“One key problem is that we are measuring the wrong thing if we want to know how many people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university.

“We know that more than half of young people entitled free school meals do not live in an area classified as SIMD20. We need a more robust way of tracking the progress made widening access to those affected by socio-economic deprivation. We’re pleased that Scottish Government have now recognised the case for using wider measures.”

Some universities have a much higher intake of students from poorer areas than others. Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of the West of Scotland have performed consistently well against the target, while St Andrews has the lowest proportion.

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