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by Chris Marshall
16 February 2023
A university admissions system which rejects candidates based on class is neither fair or progressive

A university admissions system which rejects candidates based on class is neither fair or progressive

Around a decade ago, while covering education for a national newspaper, I was contacted by the parents of a boy who had been refused a place at one of Scotland’s leading universities.

On the face of it, that doesn’t really seem like the sort of story a newspaper would concern itself with. Except on this occasion the young man had been refused a place for one reason and one reason alone – for being Scottish.

Having been schooled abroad due to his parents’ work overseas, he had applied to university and received an unconditional offer only for it to be rescinded when the admissions department realised that despite the foreign school, said candidate was in fact Scottish and therefore entitled to free tuition. 

At the time there was a lot of controversy over students from elsewhere in the UK having to pay fees of up to £9,000 a year to study in Scotland, while those from elsewhere in Europe received their tuition free of charge – a strange quirk of being an EU member which is now, sadly, no longer relevant.

Yet another feature of that funding arrangement, which does still apply, is that Scottish institutions can only take a finite number of home students. Back in the early 2010s, shortly before the then First Minister Alex Salmond made his famous comment about the rocks melting with the sun before his government scrapped free tuition, much of the debate was around widening access to Scotland’s ancient universities, some of which were taking just a handful of applicants from the most deprived postcodes. 

But while widening access is of benefit to the poorest students and society as a whole, there has nevertheless been unintended consequences. Last month, it was reported that only applicants from deprived backgrounds or underperforming state schools were accepted to study law at the University of Edinburgh, while middle class Scots were also rejected from courses including business, psychology and philosophy.

When the matter was raised at First Minister’s Questions by Labour MSP Michael Marra, Nicola Sturgeon spectacularly missed the point, telling MSPs that record numbers of young Scots are going to university and that was “really good news”.

The University of Edinburgh should be congratulated for its efforts to widen access. It is not the fault of the university but of the funding arrangements that others are being squeezed out. But how can it be fair that students with good enough grades – who would likely receive a place if they happened to be English or Welsh – are being rejected simply because of their school or where they grew up?

For students missing out on a place at one of Scotland’s ancient universities, the choice will be either a less prestigious institution or paying fees to study elsewhere in the UK – something many families will be unable to afford. A policy which at first seems equitable and just is in fact regressive and unfair.

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