By Andrew Barr
The Scottish Government has announced it will do more to ensure that young people from more deprived backgrounds have greater access to universities.
The pledge follows a report from the National Union of Students Scotland claiming that without urgent action it will take 40 years to achieve a fair balance of rich and poor students at Scottish universities.
The University of St Andrews is the least balanced in Scotland where the ratio of poor students to wealthy students reaches only 1:28. The Scottish average is 1:2.5.
NUS Scotland president Robin Parker praised the Scottish Government for their previous efforts to widen access to Scottish higher education, he said: “The Scottish Government has done a lot in this area in recent years by abolishing fees, protecting places and pledging to increase student support.”
Commenting on today’s NUS report, Mr Parker added: “Universities can’t do it all when it comes to fair access, but they can clearly do a great deal more.
“Our report shows that our universities are clearly missing out on people with huge potential from our most deprived communities.
“The most positive thing out of the report is that we know what works, and it highlights best practice at some universities which has seen students from poorer backgrounds, even those with lower grades, outperform those from better off backgrounds.
“Achieving fair access is therefore not about some kind of social engineering or charity, it’s about getting the best people into our precious university places.
“If universities fail on widening access, they’re failing on their most central of missions – getting the most talented people into university.
“Universities will rightly receive huge increases in public funding over the coming years. In return, they must make sure that university is open to talented people from all parts of Scotland.
“While protecting free education, and improving student support, opens the door to achieving fair access, the Scottish Parliament must introduce legally binding and enforceable widening access agreements to challenge our universities to do more.
“And Scottish universities must do their bit. Scotland needs people with the most potential to get places at our universities. If we can’t hold a mirror to our universities and see Scottish society then something is very wrong.”
Responding to the NUS Scotland release, SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell, Convener of the Education and Culture Committee, said that he would be working to help make Scottish universities an option for all the people of Scotland, regardless of their background.
He said: “The Scottish Government has delivered on the SNP’s 2011 Scottish election manifesto pledge to keep higher education free as well as protecting places for Scottish students in further and higher education.
“We have delivered on our cast iron promise that education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.”
The MSP for West Scotland added: “The latest figures on university applications show the impact that tuition fees south of the border are having on prospective students from Scotland.
“The number of people in Scotland applying to English universities has fallen by 15.7 per cent since last year, compared to a small reduction in applications from this group to Scottish universities of just 1.7%.”
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont made a speech to the Scottish Fabian Society earlier this year claiming that the Scottish Government’s policy on free tuition was damaging education and was holding back some of Scotland’s most talented youngsters.
However, the party’s promise of ‘no up-front or back-end tuition fees for Scottish students’ still appears on its website, claiming that fees would “dissuade young people” from going to university.
The party, which has previously criticised the SNP for focusing too much on the constitution, now shows the Tory-led ‘Better Together’ logo as the headline campaign on its website.
Mr Maxwell said that if Labour was currently in power in Scotland, free higher education would become a thing of the past.
“The Labour Party in Scotland can hang their heads in shame over their betrayal on this matter,” he said, “Labour voters will be aghast at their abandonment and blatant disregard for free education – one of its core principles. This just highlights how Labour in Scotland is turning ever increasingly Tory.”