Scottish universities remain ‘elitist’

St Andrews' Raisin Monday is all about gratitude; but only 2% of its students come from the poorest backgrounds. Picture: Dan Philips
St Andrews' Raisin Monday is all about gratitude; but only 2% of its students come from the poorest backgrounds. Picture: Dan Philips
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ENDING tuition fees for Scottish students has failed to widen access to the country’s universities, a leading academic has warned.

Professor Sheila Riddell, of Edinburgh University’s School of Education, said free tuition had not “markedly altered” recruitment of those from the poorest backgrounds.

While students elsewhere in the UK pay up to £9,000 a year in fees, Scots have not paid for the cost of tuition since the graduate endowment was abolished in 2008.

Writing in The Scotsman today, Prof Riddell says the proportion of working class students at Scotland’s leading universities has actually fallen slightly in the past decade.

She said she wanted to “pose the question” that fees could be reintroduced, with only 20 per cent of people in Scotland now believing students should be exempt from the cost of tuition.

She said: “While the Scottish Government and universities have worked to promote fair access, much more needs to be done. Free undergraduate tuition may in future contribute to the creation of a fairer society but, to date, has not markedly altered the pattern of recruitment to Scottish universities.

“Further measures are needed, including much greater efforts to reduce social inequalities in school attainment and to support students once they are enrolled in higher education.”

Prof Riddell said “anxiety” over the introduction of variable fees in England had led to investment in widening access – £371.5 million in 2010-11, compared with £10.4m in Scotland.

In contrast, student support north of the Border had been “less generous”.

Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students (NUS) in Scotland, said: “Post-16 legislation making its way through the Scottish Parliament will make sure all universities do their part to widen access and, from this autumn, Scotland will have the best student support package in the UK.

“However, tuition-free education is just as crucial to ensuring fair access. It’s not correct to suggest that burdening students with thousands of pounds of debt will encourage more people from deprived backgrounds to go on to university.”

All of Scotland’s universities now “contextualise admissions”, meaning they take into account a candidate’s school and background, rather than purely focusing on exam results. Universities are also required to widen access or face fines from the Scottish Funding Council, under agreements introduced last year.

However, Prof Riddell said the current system continued to favour the “most advantaged”, leaving a need to “re-examine the causes and consequences of social inequality”.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “Universities have a range of action, and a key element will be the need to work closely with schools to raise the ambitions of young learners. We cannot ignore the link between deprivation and attainment in school-age pupils, which is why we need effort from the earliest years to promote opportunity for all.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government added: “Free tuition in Scotland has resulted in record numbers of students studying higher education.

“Universities have made some progress in opening their doors wider in recent years and we will build upon this through the Post-16 Education Bill.”

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