Disadvantaged students: Lack of Scottish / English evidence means no firm conclusions


By Plain Old John Robertson

Are the disadvantaged in Scotland actually less likely to enter higher education than the disadvantaged in England? UCAS admit they don’t actually know. I doubt it very much.

See these two important quotes below, from the full UCAS report. A retired professor, with time on his hands clearly, read the whole thing and found a pretty obvious problem in comparing the two countries – the UCAS report makes it clear that it’s not a valid comparison. ‘It’s all right for him! We’ve got a job to do.’ says the editor of BBC Reporting Scotland.

Mr John Robertson
Mr John Robertson

First, the headline which found its way into all the TV and press reports before being parroted by opposition politicians as proof of failure. ‘The application rates from the most disadvantaged areas were 22 per cent in England, 24 per cent in Northern Ireland, 16 per cent in Scotland, and 20 per cent in Wales.’ (UCAS, 2016)

However, also in the report, in the summary for those with less time on their hands, there was this critical qualification:

‘In Scotland there is a substantial section of provision that is not included in UCAS figures. This is mostly full-time higher education provided in further education colleges which represents around one third of young full-time undergraduate study in Scotland. Consequently, for Scotland, this report reflects the trends in applications that are recruited through UCAS and not, as elsewhere in the UK, full-time undergraduate study in general. (UCAS, 2016)


Reporting Scotland, on Friday 27th May, did go on to give a more full account of the problems in comparing the two systems but by then the damage had been done by the opening headline: ‘Scotland lags behind England in the push to get younger people from poorer backgrounds to university.’

This 16% is a percentage of those who go directly to university. The other ‘one third’ represents those going to local FE colleges for HNC, HND or other ‘sub-degree’ courses with direct-entry arrangements allowing them to enter university, bypassing the UCAS figures. Of course if only 16% of this group come from disadvantaged areas, then it would still be 16% overall and thus no better. However, this seems unlikely given the considerable economic savings for those attending local colleges.

As I was researching for this, I found a very convincing report in September 2015, which does much of the work for me, on the very impressive ‘Adventures in Evidence’ written by Lucy Blackburn. ‘Evidence’, I like it! Here’s a quite large, selective, extract from the report titled ‘UCAS figures – comparing figures for disadvantaged students from Scotland and the rest of the UK’:

‘The problem is that there is rather less sub-degree HE in the non-Scottish parts of the UK than in Scotland but most of what there is appears to be recruited through UCAS; meanwhile in Scotland  there’s a much larger amount of HE provided in FE colleges, pretty much all at sub-degree level, which is not recruited through UCAS at all…. Indeed, it’s the HE provided in colleges which gives Scotland the edge in overall participation rates…..So to use UCAS data to compare the percentage of disadvantaged young people recruited onto degree-level courses you ought to take a little bit off both sets of figures as in both nations whatever sub-degree provision  is recruited through UCAS is likely to be biased towards the most disadvantaged.  How much should be deducted unfortunately would be a complete guess from the available data.  But there is still likely to be a large gap between the two nations for disadvantaged students – there just isn’t enough sub-degree level activity in England to make that much difference. However, to compare the percentage of disadvantaged young people in any form of HE you need to adjust the Scottish figure upwards significantly. The gap would probably disappear completely – Scotland might even do better than England.


Here’s another thing with comparative studies of this kind, right-off, it can’t be done……at least not in a way that everyone will agree is definitive or remotely true. Even if you could fill in the missing Scottish data on all the students who bypassed UCAS and went to local colleges, it’s still too complicated. There are too many variables I can think of. There are more, I’m sure, which I can’t think of. For example, you just can’t, meaningfully, compare two countries with such differing population sizes, histories, cultures, geography, economics and education systems. What if, for example, the differences in the UCAS figures were down to a combination of more immigration of minority groups, motivated to sacrifice, to push and to support their children more, in England and a residual, Calvinist or Catholic, fear of debt, in Scotland? I’m not seriously offering these as the answer, but the first is kind of echoed below by an English professor and by some evidence from the Scottish Government. I’m really using these ‘unknowables’ to reinforce the need for extreme caution in making comparisons between one country and another.

UnknownIf you were to have a real go at this, empirically, the key would be to find out just how big the ‘substantial’ number not in the UCAS figures is, for Scotland and, crucially, how many of them come from disadvantaged areas. UCAS notes: ‘for the most part, demand for HE in further education colleges in Scotland is not recorded.’ These are the students applying to FE colleges for HNC, HND and other ‘sub-degree’ programmes where there is a direct-entry arrangement, from FE, into 1st, 2nd or 3rd year degree programmes in a university. Based on my own experience, I know that direct-entry students can make up the larger part of some cohorts in new universities.

Of course, the real stories, ignored by our media, were these, from UCAS again:

‘Application rates of 18 year olds living in disadvantaged areas in Scotland, defined using the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, increased in 2016 to 16 per cent – the highest recorded. 18 year olds living in these areas became 8 per cent more likely to apply than in 2015, and 65 per cent more likely to apply than in 2006.’ (UCAS, 2016)

‘Scotland is the only country in the UK to have seen increases in student entrants from all domiciles.’ (UCAS, 2016)


Look at the last two lines there and wonder why Scottish mainstream media couldn’t use these for their headlines. What we got instead was the opening headline with the largely invalid comparison, used to pressurize SNP ministers. Perhaps the most dramatic piece of misrepresentation for naked ideological purposes (free tuition fees don’t work), appeared in the New Statesman on 3rd May and was repeated across social media by Tory and Labour supporters.

‘Scotland is by far the worst country in the UK to be a disadvantaged student. The richest Scottish students are 3.53 times more likely to enter university aged 18 (or younger) via UCAS than the poorest ones, compared with 2.58 in Northern Ireland, 2.56 in Wales and 2.52 in England. Fewer than one in ten young people from the most disadvantaged areas begin to study towards a degree by the age of 20. And the problems are actually getting worse: just 8.4 per cent of entrants to Scotland’s elite universities came from the poorest communities in 2014/15, down from 8.8 per cent the previous year.’ (Wigmore, New Statesman, 3rd May 2016)

The New Statesman Cricket Correspondent (usually) and SNP-basher (often), Tim Wigmore, might have been well-advised to say nothing such is his lack of understanding or care.

An earlier but different take on the figures, from that of the cricket correspondent, came from Dr Danny Dorling.  Dorling is Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford but, I guess, not a big influence on Tim Wigmore when he was there. He wrote this in Times Higher:

In contrast to England, Scotland shows what a real narrowing of inequalities would look like. There, the most dramatic change has been in the proportion of children from the most disadvantaged quintile of areas going to the highest tariff universities.’ (THE, 4th February 2016)

Here’s compelling evidence of this from the 2015 UCAS End of Cycle Report (ref below, page 90):

Fig70GIFThe 2016 End of Cycle Report from UCAs will be out on June 9th.

Perhaps, supporting my earlier guess about aspirational immigrant applicants and debt-fearing Scots, Dorling also wrote:

‘We could speculate that many young people from the rest of the EU – especially the poorer parts – have calculated that they will never earn enough to have to repay the loans (to which they are as entitled as domestic students).’


Further evidence for this idea can perhaps be seen in these Scottish data, from a Scottish Government report on the Evidence of Sectarianism (2015), revealing the possible effects of aspirational parenting and financial support among minority and immigrant groups.

The report revealed that relatively recent arrivals in Scotland (not 19th and early 20th Century Irish Holocaust refugees) such as Jews (48%), Hindus (52%), Muslims (34%) and Sikhs (33%) are actually much more strongly represented in the more affluent, managerial, directorial and professional, sectors of Scottish society and economy than are the Secular (25%), Protestant (24%) or Catholic (23%) groups. I am a confirmed secular atheist dudist, thank God, so I’m relieved to see that we’re beating those Christians on this, if only by 1%. Here it is again, in case you had forgotten, the real headlines we should have heard:

‘Application rates of 18 year olds living in disadvantaged areas in Scotland, defined using the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, increased in 2016 to 16 per cent – the highest recorded. 18 year olds living in these areas became 8 per cent more likely to apply than in 2015 and 65 per cent more likely to apply than in 2006.’ (UCAS, 2016)

Prof Dorling also sent me a more general piece he has written, titled ‘Sons and Daughters’, (ref below) which also suggests a more positive view of the Scottish system. It demonstrates strong performance, relative to the English, Wales and Northern Ireland system, for both Scottish schools and HE.



Just as you should only compare your personal progress with yourself as you were before, you should never compare yourself to others. That way depression and madness lies. However, at the collective level (Scotland), it’s clear from all of the above, that we should certainly not allow our mainstream media to mislead us into feelings of some kind of failure, for ideological (Unionist/SNP-bashing) purposes.

It’s a very old story this – complex research data is simplified or misrepresented with potentially damaging consequences. In this at least partially democratic society, we really are entitled to better.







Sons and Daughters: http://www.dannydorling.org/wp-content/files/dannydorling_publication_id1107.pdf


Note: This article was updated on Monday, May 31, to include a Dorling graph and a BBC News link.


  1. Plain? Old? Ok oldish but seen worse? As for the not so plain embroidered cowboy shirt, gave it to charity shirt to stop threats from wife.

  2. I told the Ed I was feeling increasingly detached from and in less need of, my titles, after nearly six months retired so he chose to write ‘Plain Old John Robertson’. I had hope for ‘John Robertson.’ He’ll have a reason or maybe not.

    • Aye John ….the ED’s got his reasons…… Have you seen the states of him…….

      Great topic BTW……. Now I’m off to read it

  3. Why doesn’t the Scottish Government challenge this guff from the media instead of just going “we know there’s more to be done” all the time? Why is it so difficult to state in a response that the UCAS figures for England include ALL further education institutions but in Scotland it doesn’t include colleges, therefore it’s comparing apples with pears. Why do they have to be so wishy washy and on the back foot all the time?

    Sometimes I despair at them, it’s so frustrating.

    • John…. Not convinced that’s the reason the Scottish Government don’t “bite back”….. Sometimes they do address the lies…… When they don’t, I put it down to not having done their homework…… Which in this instance you have done for them, well done John! Nicola should offer you a post…

  4. Thank you for that. The media take on Scottish vs. English HE seemed counter-intuitive, so it’s good to have a well-supported analysis of why it’s most likely wrong. And I would guess the students who take the FE college route may also be graduating at higher rates and quite possibly with lower debt than their peers in England? I agree the Scottish Government should be defending itself better; but what is most important is better presentation of the evidence by outsiders.

  5. David Torrance in the Herald seems to have swallowed the invalid comparison, hook, line and sinker. POJR might care to comment directly onto that thread?

    • I did add a lot to another Herald piece on Friday. Will look at the Torrance thing though he never engages. Thanks. POJR? Hmmm. No sure about this. Bit of a podgy feel to it. Suspect the Eds are enjoying this. One is Bateman and the other is also known as M. Masters Bateman? Aaar come ere Master Bateman!

  6. It kind of bugs me, when its shockingly obvious that ‘Free’ will attract more poor people (I was one of these). Whereas ‘debt’ will scare them away.

    From recent student loans scandals and the implicit long term debt for those who ‘earn less’ vs ‘high earners’ (much longer to pay off = more accumulated interest on the debt). It defies belief that the BBC could present a case for universal free education – stop calling them BBC Scotland. Ponsonby and Joffre are the only ones I would ever trust of all the ‘Scottish Lot’ – but its London that drives the rest.

  7. The Headline could have shown more bias, imagine what a pro Independence Magnus Gardham would have done with this article …. “100% Scotland’s Disadvantaged Kids get 1st Class Degrees”

  8. John, have you done any analysis of the criticism that 152000 FE places were lost as a result of free university tuition? I seem to remember reading a post from an FE lecturer saying that the 152K figure was bogus as there aren’t that many FE students in Scotland.

    • Wings did a great article on that, this is a summary 🙂

      The SFC measures college activity not by headcounts but in things called WSUMs, or Weighted Standard Units of Measurement, which give a much more accurate picture of how much studying is being done overall. And how do those figures look, you might be wondering? Luckily, we can show you.

      As you can see, there’s still been a fall in the total amount of teaching and learning in Scotland’s further-education colleges by the WSUM measure since the SNP took power. To be precise, it’s a cumulative fall of just over 3% across seven years (which for unalert readers is under 0.43% a year), a period spanning a massive economic crash which has seen a stranglehold put on Scotland’s budget by Westminster.

      Unionists know only too well that retaining 97% of college output, under those extreme financial pressures, while refocusing the college sector on more practical and useful employment-targetted courses, keeping tuition free across the board and ending Labour’s £2,000 graduate endowment charge for good measure, is in fact something approaching a miraculous achievement by the Scottish Government.


  9. Another great article, – forensic….

    But, why are the BBC and STV getting away with reporting like this. They must know that systems in England and Scotland can’t be compared in this way- so why report it- why make it headline news throughout the day (particularly bad on BBC radio)- Where is Jamie Mcivors ‘proper’ and ‘full’ analysis that could have reflected this report- based on the ‘apples and oranges’ theory.

    As you say the damage ‘HAS’ been done- and as far as I can see based on misleading comparisons. Is the BBC trying to mislead us?? Why?

    I thought the new chap who took over from John Boothman was going to change things?

    I agree with *Maia Pinion* – why is the Scottish Government not ‘sternly’ challenging the BBC on this one (and others). They are allowing the state broadcaster to undermine them based on reports that appear to include comparisons which can be reported in a misleading way – Why?

    I hope someone can link this article to John Swinney, – (and also GA Ponsonby’s great article on the same subject)-

  10. Difficult to make comparisons but comparisons are worth making so that best practice can be shared so that those from deprived areas can get the best start in life. This will require co-operation and dialogue, Can you suggest a platform for this?

  11. For me the priority is wider social equality which will have a greater effect on attainment gaps than adjusting educational programmes.

  12. I think the SG should be trying harder to get a Scottish Broadcasting Service ( SBS ) off the ground . I , like many others , get fed up with the constant devious distortions of facts . I know it opens up the usual ,” it would be too parochial , ( a bit like you then John, according to some ! ) , it wouldn’t have the money for decent programs etc., ” but if it could start off by being a decent , honest news channel with good Scottish journalists and a good mixed bag of knowledgeable opinions ,( with NO-ONE from the BBC or STV ) involved , it would be a start .

  13. It is the Scottish governments duty to protect the people of Scotland against the media and bbc lies just as it is their duty to protect us from any other crime why are they not doing it ? It is called not doing your job it is all very well to say broadcasting is a reserved matter but telling lies and misreporting to a nation is not reserved the proof is to be found everywhere and every day I mean to do nothing is in a sense to condone it is it not? I support the S.N.P. But in this I find them sorely lacking

  14. Me too. It’s part of the new post-Salmond strategy to say nothing and hope to win by seeming competent. Not sure the results at Holyrood elections support its effectivenesss.

  15. Thankyou John for another great piece of analysis. I have passed it on to many, inc my SNP MP and my SNP MSP. I have asked them why you are speaking out strongly but the SNP Govt is not. They need to stand up and be counted on matters of BBC and print media bias. I strongly support the SNP. But I’m beginning to wonder the point of the 56 MPs in WM. Angus and others ask good questions. But they are there to ensure a fair deal for Scotland. The Scotland Act wasn’t it. So what are they doing?

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