Under a new initiative, all of Scotland’s universities will have to adopt new practices to increase the proportion of university entrants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in Scotland.
Universities Scotland’s ‘Working to Widen Access’ initiative has set out a series of steps universities will be required to implement. This includes ‘contextualised admissions’, where university admissions place less of an emphasis on exam results and consider other relevant information to assess an applicant’s academic potential, such as their socio-economic status.
The practice involves setting minimum entry requirements for applicants from the most deprived areas.
Contextualised admissions are already in place at some Scottish universities but will now be expanded to all of the 19 higher education institutions represented by Universities Scotland.
The Scottish Government has set a target for students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland to make up 20 per cent of the total student population by 2030.
Despite offering free tuition to its Scottish and EU students, Scotland has the lowest percentage of applicants from state schools and college backgrounds making up the higher education population when compared with the rest of the UK.
One of the possible explanations for this is that due to the cost of providing free tuition, there has been a decrease in funding for bursaries for poorer students in Scotland.
The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) reported in 2017 that 14 per cent of Scottish domiciled university entrants for the 2015/16 academic year were from the 20 per cent most deprived areas. Universities Scotland has described the Government’s target as “stretching but possible”.
The older universities in Scotland have made slower progress in this area than the newer universities who have a higher proportion of students with a working class or disadvantaged background.
The SFC reported that in 2015/16 only eight per cent of Scottish entrants at the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews came from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland.
Contrastingly, Queen Margaret University and Abertay University had almost double this amount with 15 per cent of Scottish entrants for that year coming from the most deprived areas.
While it is hopeful these measures will give talented applicants from deprived backgrounds a fairer chance of accessing higher education, critics have argued the policy is unfair to applicants from more affluent backgrounds.
Peter Scott, the Scottish Government’s Commissioner for Free Access, has repeatedly expressed concerns that unless university league tables take account of the Scottish Government’s attempt to increase the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Scottish universities will face a decline in league tables.
Universities Scotland aims to have minimum entry requirements in place by 2019 so applicants for the 2020/2021 academic year may benefit.
Image: Boon Low