Demonised or deserving: are Scottish universities doing enough to attract poorest pupils?

The row over whether Scotland’s elite universities are doing enough to attract poor students has reignited after St Andrew’s complained it was being stigmatised unfairly for admitting just over a dozen from deprived areas. This is from the Guardian…

The debate over access to university for pupils from deprived backgrounds has sharply intensified after St Andrews university – Scotland’s oldest university and the one singled out for criticism, has complained its sector is being “demonised” over its access strategies.

The dispute ties in with a rumbling conflict between the universities and the National Union of Students and Scottish government about their overall funding. NUS Scotland argues their status as “elite” institutions identifies a core complaint; they are elitist by ambition and by design.

Too few pupils from poor backgrounds are getting places at the top universities, say NUS Scotland. Not because they are too stupid or unschooled, but because the universities do too little to help them: only 14 kids from the poorest 20% of Scottish neighbourhoods made it to St Andrews last year – a low 2.7% of its overall intake.

And having resisted pressure (which has temporarily died down) from the likes of St Andrews and Edinburgh to reconsider its ban on graduate contributions or tuition fees, the Scottish government is aligning itself with NUS Scotland.

Mike Russell, the Scottish education secretary, is demanding more active and effective action to widen access, to increase the numbers of poorer kids at top colleges. Doing so has effectively been made a condition of increased government funding of £135m between 2011/12 and 2014/15.

So Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews are responding. The biggest of the two – Edinburgh and Glasgow – are doing so relatively quietly. And their targets are modest, to say the least.

Chris Marshall, the Scotsman’s education correspondent, reports that Edinburgh will increase its pupils from the poorest areas by 50%, or an extra 45 places, by 2016; Glasgow, the university in the region with the greatest poverty levels, is promising a 1% increase of its total intake.

But St Andrews is openly furious about the attacks on its policies. It believes it has been unjustifiably singled out.

Stephen Magee, its vice principal for admissions, says the university has been “contextualising” its admission criteria – that is giving extra weight to students from poorer backgrounds – for seven years, and already has significant bursary and scholarship schemes.

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