Universities take steps to increase access for poorer students

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  By Jenna Sutherland

Scotland’s nineteen universities are being congratulated on their steps to offer more accessible routes to higher education for all applicants, irrespective of their circumstances.  University principals have made a joint Universities Scotland statement agreeing to provide greater opportunities to students from all backgrounds. 

They also published their separate outcome agreements for the academic year of 2012-13. Another goal highlighted is to improve retention rates amongst students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds.

The statement, which has been negotiated between the institutions and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), aims to give more recognition to each applicant’s individual circumstances.

The Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP) is specifically designed for adults trying to get into higher education, even if the the applicant has been in work for years or have no formal qualifications.  Since SWAP started in 1988 more than 27,000  adults have used to programme to return to education.

Professor Pete Dowes, convener of Universities Scotland, said: “Universities have committed to a considerable range of actions and targets on access in their outcome agreements, and all principals have given a firm commitment to deliver in their statement issued today.

“Widening access is a complex problem and its root causes go right back to the early years. There are actions universities can take to bring about change in the short term and the sector shares the conviction to do that.

“It will take a much longer, combined effort on the part of government, schools,  colleges and universities to bring about a lasting step-change in widening access in Scotland.”

In March this year, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that only 27% of Scottish university students are from the lowest socio-economic group, compared to 39% of students from similar backgrounds in Northern Ireland.  Scotland also has the highest rate of student drop outs in the UK.  The drop-out rate in Scotland was 9.4%, as against 9% in Wales, 8.4% in England and 8.3% in Northern Ireland.

Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, said: “It’s simply unacceptable for Scotland’s universities to be worst in the whole of the UK for drop-out and getting people from the poorest background into university.”

Joan McAlpine, SNP MSP for South Scotland and member of the Education and Culture Committee, has welcomed the news. Ms McAlpine has previously spoken out on her belief that people should be allowed on to further education by the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. 

She said: “Keeping university tuition free for Scottish-domiciled students is vital to ensuring that as many of our young people as possible can benefit from higher education.

“The SNP Government’s introduction of a minimum income guarantee of £7,250 per year to be introduced in the academic year of 2013 in tandem with free entry into universities along with Widening Access Agreements and now a commitment from the universities themselves is a sure way of continuing for equal opportunities in education for generations to come in Scotland.”

Figures show this seems to be working, new research from Ambitious Minds shows a rise in Scottish university applications, but a significant fall in England where students face high tuition fees.

Michael Russell, the Education Secretary said: “Scotland is the only country in the UK with free higher education. It is the only country to see an increase in the number of young people applying for courses, as well as the highest number of students ever accepted into our universities.

“Improved availability of loans and equal support for part-time students alongside free tuition will help ensure all those with potential can go to university.”