Funding for a flagship scheme to help poorer students to university is to be halted as a result of Scottish Government cuts, it emerged yesterday.
The Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the national body responsible for financing university learning, has revealed it will cease providing cash for “additional funded places” for the forthcoming financial year.
Launched in 2013/14, the initiative is estimated to have funded 1,798 places this year and was supposed to expand next year so that more youngsters from deprived areas would benefit from a university education.
Yesterday, however, it emerged that a reduction in higher education funding from £1,063 million to £1,027 has led to the SFC taking the decision not to fund the scheme next year.
The decision led to claims that the Scottish Government was failing to live up to its promise to help the disadvantaged fulfil their potential.
Last night the Scottish Conservative young people spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “The SNP stated categorically that it is a priority to help those from less privileged backgrounds get a place at university. But evidence like this tells a completely different story.
“It’s already bad enough that the Scottish Government is failing to close the attainment gap and that it is failing to address the decline in literacy and numeracy.
“But now we learn that because of the budget choices made by the SNP the widening access policy is facing major challenges. That tells you everything you need to know about the SNP’s record on education – it likes to talk a good game, but when it comes to action it clearly isn’t interested.”
A SFC document revealed the decision had been taken “in light of the 3.3 per cent reduction in SFC’s grant-in-aid and help to minimise reductions in core teaching grant allocations.”
The SFC later claimed that universities had agreed to compensate by financing efforts to widen access themselves.
However, the Scotsman understands that while universities are keen to take on more under-graduates from poor backgrounds a university source said it would be “very difficult” to the extent planned without SFC assistance.
A Scottish Funding Council spokesman said: “Before we published our indicative funding allocations we had very constructive discussions with universities. These included talks about widening access to higher education. Universities undertook to deliver additional places for widening access without further funding from SFC, essentially making this level of commitment the norm we build on for the future. We see this as an extremely positive contribution to removing the barriers some people face in going to university.”
A Universities Scotland spokesperson said: “The lack of funding for ring-fenced widening access places next year does not detract from universities’ commitment to widen access.
“The additional places are a good idea because they help reduce some of the competition for university places where demand far exceeds supply. If they are gone universities will be faced with more difficult decisions between very able applicants from very different backgrounds. The extra places are one part of a much bigger range of initiatives that universities run to widen access including working with schools and communities to raise aspiration and attainment.
“We know that widening access remains an important priority to the Scottish Government, as it does to universities, and we expect a report from the Commission on widening access later this month. It would be very helpful if we could have a conversation with Government and the Funding Council about widening access to understand this decision in that wider context.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Every child, whatever their background should have an equal chance of attending university. Our actions to widen access have delivered significant improvements, compared to the position 2007-08, but we recognise the need to do more.
“The Scottish Government’s Letter of Guidance to SFC makes clear that there should be no let-up in efforts to widen access It must also be recognised that there are a range of barriers and issues affecting access, not all of which are financial. The Commission on Widening Access was set up to identify such issues and advise us on the steps necessary to drive further and faster progress.”
He added: “We have invested over four billion pounds in the higher education sector over the last four years and will continue to invest over £1 billion in our higher education institutions in 2016-17.”