‘One in five students must be from poor backgrounds’

Mike Russell said such a change was long overdue for Scotland. Picture: Jane Barlow
Mike Russell said such a change was long overdue for Scotland. Picture: Jane Barlow
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SCOTLAND’S universities have been told poorer students should make up at least 20 per cent of their roll – with sanctions looming if they do not improve access.

Education secretary Mike Russell said he had run out of patience over the lack of action from top institutions in getting youngsters from deprived areas through their doors. He believes these establishments currently do not reflect wider Scottish ­society.

Universities get £1.1 billion a year in funding from the public purse, more than a third of their budgets. But some have as few as 2 per cent of students from less well-off backgrounds – and the record in Scotland is worse than south of the Border.

The SNP government is now introducing legislation to ensure change and Mr Russell made it clear universities will face consequences if they do not act.

“There will be a sanction if any higher education institution is not prepared to treat this as seriously as it should be doing and show evidence that they’ve done so,” he told Holyrood’s education committee yesterday.

He added that individual “outcome agreements” in place as part of an overhaul of post-16 education meant that change “must be delivered”.

He said: “The aim is at least to reach the percentage of the population share that come from those kind of areas, the 20 per cent from those perhaps lower socio-economic areas. I think this change is long overdue.”

The Scottish Government’s decision to enshrine the drive for fairer access in legislation meant that “wider society” would have to address the issue, he said, with schools also having a role to play.

Mr Russell said the 20 per cent aspiration could not be applied to each university, as the make-up of students would not always reflect local social conditions, but the bill does have individual “targets and methods” for each institution.

“That’s what people would want to see,” he added.

He later told Conservative MSP Liz Smith that the 20 per cent goal would not be in the legislation, but said it was “a target we should all have in our mind”. Mark Batho, of the Scottish Funding Council, told MSPs that universities will now be expected to improve their performance in getting more students from less well-off backgrounds through their doors.

He said: “The fact is that progress has been very slow and across the piece the performance of institutions in Scotland has not been as good as the performance of institutions in other parts of the UK.”

Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said that universities north of the Border had a “terrible record” on fair access.

“At the current rate, it will take over 40 years for Scottish universities to be fully representative of Scottish society,” he said. “That’s far too long to wait, which is why it is important that the parliament acts now.”

However, Universities Scotland director Alistair Sim said that the Scottish index of multiple deprivation was focused on areas, but widening access may be better achieved by targeting individuals.

He added: “Every university in Scotland is committed to widening access and to ensuring that university is open to students with the ability and potential to benefit from higher education regardless of their socio-­economic background.

“There has been progress … and universities share in the desire to do more. However, universities cannot deliver on this alone. As the Cabinet secretary acknowledged, there is much to be done at school level in terms of raising attainment if we are to see more applications from under-represented groups.”