By Naina Bhardwaj, News Editor
Middle class students will be squeezed out of universities under radical plans to boost the number of poorer undergraduates studying in Scottish campuses, university principals have warned.
The Scottish Government wants to increase the volume of students from the poorest households so they represent 20 %of all undergraduates by 2030, almost double the current proportion of 10.8% following concerns that initiatives to improve access to university were not making sufficient progress.
The move follows the final 103-page report from the Commission on Widening Access which recommended the introduction of so-called ‘adjusted offers’ as a vital step towards fairer access and it was revealed that all Scottish universities had agreed to accept poorer students with lower exam grades in a bid to boost the number of working class undergraduates.
Only 8% of 18-year-old Scots from the poorest areas enter university, it found, compared with 17% in England, 15% in Wales and 14% in Northern Ireland.
Part of the problem is that pupils from poorer backgrounds tend not to do as well in school exams as those from the middle classes – more than two-thirds of independent school entrants gained a place in one of the four ancient universities, compared with less than a third of state school entrants – because of the impact of poverty and can therefore find it more difficult to enter higher education – which is highly competitive.
Additionally although some poor youngsters enter higher education through the college system, and then articulate to university, the report found this route limited access to high-status courses like medicine and law and they were more likely to end up in lower paid jobs.
The study also found that Scotland’s pre-92 universities, those that were not formerly polytechnics or colleges, have become increasingly dominated by the middle classes. The proportion of entrants whose parents have middle-class managerial and professional backgrounds has now increased to 67%.
Under the current higher education system the overall number of publicly-funded places is tightly capped meaning that without greater investment an expansion for one group of students would inevitably lead to a reduction in others. Umbrella group, Universities Scotland, the body which represents principals from 19 institutions, said there would be inevitable “displacement” from a drive to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds – unless the number of student places are expanded.
Professor Andrea Nolan, Convenor of Universities Scotland, said: “It is a political choice how you fund a higher education system and if we are to increase places to hit the 20% target without there being a change in demand and in a fixed cap system there is only one obvious conclusion which is that some people will be displaced. There may be other choices that are developed for those people. Demand may change, but that is the reality of where I see we are now.”
Instead the report warned that the move may have ultimately backfires as the Scottish Government has been forced to limit the number of university places for Scottish students to keep the free tuition policy affordable. In fact Audit Scotland found the number of Scottish youngsters attending universities north of the Border in all types of places has declined over the past decade, during which the SNP introduced free tuition.
John Kemp, interim chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) was asked by Conservative Party Education Spokeswoman Liz Smith about students being “squeezed out” of places because of fair access schemes, and replied that he did “not deny” expanding the number of poorer students – and not impacting admissions elsewhere – would require more places to be made available. But he said there were other ways in which targets could be met such as improved links between colleges and universities with students spreading their higher education studies across the two sectors.