Scottish universities to increase number of students from deprived backgrounds

Graduation ceremony at Glasgow University. Picture: Colin Templeton
Graduation ceremony at Glasgow University. Picture: Colin Templeton
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TWO of the country’s leading universities have vowed to increase the number of students they recruit from deprived backgrounds in return for extra funding from the Scottish Government.

The universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow have outlined a series of measures to widen access as part of their “outcome agreements” with the Scottish Funding Council, the body which provides money on behalf of the government.

Edinburgh intends to increase by 50 per cent the number of undergraduates from the poorest homes by 2016, the equivalent of 45 extra students a year.

Glasgow said it would increase its intake of the poorest students by 1 per cent of its total - the equivalent of an extra 32 students a year by 2014.

The outcome agreements were drawn up as part of a funding agreement which will see Scottish universities receive an additional £135m between 2011/12 and 2014/15.

Described by the SFC as a “something for something” deal, the universities were given the extra funding along with a series of “asks”, including widening access.

While both Edinburgh and Glasgow already run a number of schemes to encourage those from working class backgrounds to apply, the outcome agreements are the first time they have set out a clear commitment in terms of numbers.

In its outcome agreement, Edinburgh University states: “We recognise that not all applicants have had an equal opportunity to evidence their academic potential. Through our use of contextual data in admissions, we seek to identify those from different social, economic, cultural and educational backgrounds who have the potential to succeed at Edinburgh.”

Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, said: “There are no excuses for universities not making progress on fair access. Fair access is not an add on, it’s about getting those with the most potential into higher education and that’s what universities should be doing regardless of demand for places.

“Universities can’t do it all to achieve fair access but they can, and must, do more. There are hundreds of millions of pounds of public funding going into university funding. From next year there will be a huge investment to boost places for college students and those from the most deprived backgrounds to go to university. There really are no excuses left for inaction on fair access.”

At the weekend, The Scotsman’s sister publication Scotland on Sunday revealed plans by all Scottish universities to “contextualise admissions”, taking into account a person’s background rather than simply their exam results.

The move means teenagers from poorer backgrounds who fail to get the necessary grades could still win a place at university.

While the SFC has previously talked of financial penalties for universities which fail to honour the pledges made in their outcome agreements, it remains unclear whether this will be the case.

A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said: “Every university is committed to widening access and to delivering progress in this area and many universities already have highly diverse student populations. As part of the new outcome agreements, institutions have worked with the Funding Council to set themselves realistic goals for increasing access over the next few years.

“It is important that this process takes full account of each universities’ respective starting point and the different contexts in which they operate.”