SCOTLAND’S most selective universities are to allow greater access for poorer students and allocate more places to graduates from local colleges.
Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St Andrews universities – regarded as having the toughest entry requirements – are among those which will offer more than 700 new places people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The decision is part of the “widening access” process and is backed with almost £40 million for the 2013-14 academic year beginning this autumn.
Nine universities will provide the 727 extra undergraduate places, including Glasgow with 200, Edinburgh with 50, Aberdeen with 75 and St Andrews, 20.
The Scottish Funding Council announced the move yesterday as part of its annual “outcome agreements” with Scotland’s 19 universities. These set out a series of pledges between institutions and Scottish Government in return for funding.
Fourteen universities will introduce a further 1,020 places for college students who wish to progress to university, known as “articulation”.
This will allow those who have completed an HNC or HND to enter at second or third year, instead of starting a four-year university degree from first year.
St Andrews – ranked as Scotland’s top university and in the top 50 worldwide according to some lists – is not among the 14 but will fund its own scheme to take 10 college graduates from the new Fife College.
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “Next year’s additional places, ring-fenced for access and for articulation from college, will help to accelerate the pace of change and we hope to see as much as a 15 per cent increase in entrants from Scotland’s most deprived areas.”
The National Union of Students has welcomed the move but said institutions could do a “great deal more” than just taking 10 or 20 deprived students each year.
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said: “It’s clear the government’s investment in £40m worth of places for students from deprived backgrounds will see improvements, but it’s unclear how far universities are taking the initiative and going above and beyond this.
“To see the huge improvements in fair access we want to see, universities must do much more.”
Scottish Labour welcomed the move but said it came at a time when the Scottish Government was reducing bursaries in favour of larger loans, leaving students in greater debt.
Hugh Henry MSP, the party’seducation spokesman, said: “This is a small but welcome development and this recognises there is a problem for students from disadvantaged background gaining access Scottish universities.
“It is, however, regrettable that at the same time the grants for poorer students are being substantially cut and that needs to be revisited.”
Altogether nearly 3,000 additional university places will be introduced in 2013-14.
Along with the widening access and college graduate places schemes, 342 undergraduate places focusing on industries with a skills shortage, such as engineering and oil and gas, will be created.
A further 815 postgraduate positions will be introduced to contribute to a “knowledge-based economy”.
Laurence Howells, interim chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council, which distributes the £1 billion university budget, said: “With just under 3,000 specific additional places being funded for 2013-14, 727 are being provided for widening access initiatives.
“A further 1,020 places are going to help college students progress further through courses that begin in college and end with graduation from a university.
“The remaining places will be used by universities to develop high-level skills in undergraduate and postgraduate students.”
In November, it emerged that every university in the country would “contextualise” entrants, taking into account a candidate’s background rather than simply refusing a place based on their academic record.
The radical change in the way that universities handle admissions means that some students who fail to get the necessary grades may still win a place based on their background.
However, the number and level of funding for such places was not known until yesterday.
The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation is used to calculate if prospective pupils would qualify for the new positions.
The number of such students has risen from 18,073 in 2004-05 to 21,126 in 2010-11. However, it slumped by nearly 1,000 to 20,114 in 2011-12.
Edinburgh has also pledged a new scheme to supply a Scotland Accommodation Bursary of £500 to £2,000 to every undergraduate entrant from households whose income is less than £34,000 and who is relocating to the city to study.
Robert Gordon University said it aims to increase the number of entrants from poorer backgrounds from 87 students in 2009-10 to 142 students by 2013-14.
John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, said: “Our expectation would be that entry should remain primarily on academic attainment, because universities are seeking to develop people who are ready to study and reached the appropriate standards.
“However, the key point for us is these are all new places and in theory they shouldn’t change the situation for anyone else anyway.”