Edinburgh University: Quotas for students from deprived backgrounds are reasonable but not at 100 per cent – Cameron Wyllie

I have to be honest: when someone told me about that the University of Edinburgh had last year only admitted young Scots from deprived areas or from underperforming schools to nine courses, including English, history and law, I thought they were kidding, that they had misunderstood something.

Then it turned out that it was true, and my feeling of puzzlement turned to anger and incredulity. How this possibly be? To explain why I’m so bothered, a bit of personal stuff: both my parents came from working-class Central Belt backgrounds. Both my grandfathers were coal miners, one of them married to a domestic servant. Both my parents left school when they were 15. When I was five, I joined my brother in a private school.

Now, the fees, when I started school, were £70 a year; I’m not pretending that wasn’t a struggle for my parents (no car, no holidays etc) but it was their choice for whatever reason. What they wanted, above all, was for my brother and me to do well and go to university, which indeed we did, being the first people in our family to do so.

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I applied to the University of Edinburgh to study law and to study English. In the course of waiting for responses, I decided I wanted to be a teacher rather than a lawyer, which displeased my mother but made me very happy (no one tells jokes which begin “what do you call 100 dead English teachers…”) So I got into both courses, but chose English and the rest, as they say, is history or… was English.

Back in those days, the Faculty of Law at Edinburgh was crammed with middle-class children, many from private schools, and I have no problem whatsoever with the idea that here, in 2023, it’s time for balance. Many people reading this will take some pleasure in the idea that the independent schools, those (apparent) bastions of the establishment have had a comeuppance.

In any case, that’s not what bothers me, or indeed, I imagine, bothered Michael Marra, the Labour MSP, when he raised this issue at Holyrood recently, only to be scornfully told off by the First Minister who said she was pleased that more deprived young Scots are getting these (now) very covetable places at this ancient university, of which I am a proud alumnus.

Yes, Nicola! So are we all! Of course, it’s right that priority should be given to young people who, against the considerable odds of deprivation get good grades at school. I am 100 per cent behind the Scottish Government’s policy of trying to close the poverty-related attainment gap, a laudable aim which, by most measures, they have so far failed to begin to achieve.

But what is not right is that there were 555 applicants from across Scotland not considered to be ‘deprived’ who did not get into study law at Edinburgh last year and who, in essence, had zero chance of doing so. These are not all kids from Fettes or Gordonstoun, or even from Watson’s or Heriot’s; the very vast majority of them are from state schools and backgrounds not considered ‘deprived’.

Many of those who did not get into Edinburgh University to study law or eight other courses will have come from the ‘ordinary, hard-working families’ which politicians often talk about (Picture: Jane Barlow)
Many of those who did not get into Edinburgh University to study law or eight other courses will have come from the ‘ordinary, hard-working families’ which politicians often talk about (Picture: Jane Barlow)
Many of those who did not get into Edinburgh University to study law or eight other courses will have come from the ‘ordinary, hard-working families’ which politicians often talk about (Picture: Jane Barlow)

Many of them come from families which are the very definition of the ‘ordinary, hard-working families’ which politicians are always banging on about. Most state schools in Scotland are not deprived and now their most academic pupils are shut out of major courses at Edinburgh including, of course, Scots law, which by its very nature, isn’t a course available at Bristol or Trinity College, Dublin or even many Scottish universities.

I’m not pleading for entry by ‘merit’ because ‘merit’ and ‘potential’ are so difficult to gauge in this area. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that shows that students from less well-off backgrounds and schools do better at university because they understand how to learn independently. So it’s fine with me to have clear quotas for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and schools. But the quota can’t be 100 per cent.

Also, it’s not the case that the young Scots who did get in will be on their own. They will, of course, be joined by a bevy of students from south of the Border, who will be paying fees, and by a host of international students, paying even higher fees. Edinburgh is a very, very desirable destination for ‘foreign’ students so these nine courses will be crammed to the gunnels. So it was easier for a boy from Eton or a rich man’s daughter from Beijing to get into the University of Edinburgh to study Scots law than it was for any young person from most state schools in Scotland.

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This honestly cannot be what was intended; I can neither understand how the University of Edinburgh allowed this to happen nor why the First Minister is condoning it. I imagine someone has already asked this question: Holyrood is crammed with law graduates. How many of them would have got into the University of Edinburgh to study it last year? This outcome isn’t about ‘fairness’ or ‘equality’, it’s about blind social manipulation, and it typifies much of current education policy in Scotland.

I wouldn’t have got in. My brother, the lawyer, wouldn’t have either. I doubt if the First Minister would have. None of this stops me wishing the young Scots who did gain entry success with their studies and I hope they make good friends with the rich folk from other countries they’re sitting next to.

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