Hugh Reilly: This university class ceiling shames us all

EARLIER this year, I wrote a column decrying the lamentable efforts of some of our traditional universities to attract students from poor backgrounds.

The online version of my article excited an angry response from an anonymous student of St Andrews University, who castigated me for not being aware of the outstanding work being done to entice the brightest of the free-school-dinner brigade to study at the illustrious seaside seat of learning.

Sink me, egad, but I found it a tad curious that the Fife pimpernel opted not to support his/her case with, erm, a pesky fact or two. However, happy to help, I can reveal that the heroic, unstinting endeavours of The Unknown Undergraduate and others have resulted in a whopping 13 students – a baker’s dozen or, if you prefer, a healthy 2.7 per cent of the student intake – from the most deprived backgrounds enrolling at St Andy’s. Let no-one now dare question that hallowed institution’s unflinching determination to widen access to its venerable cloisters.

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Through “outcome agreements”, the Scottish Funding Council is pressurising universities to enthusiastically embrace the administration’s desire to level the present academic playing field that makes the famous Easter Road slope resemble a billiard table.

The carrot for the donkeys who stubbornly refuse to contemplate the middle-class ambience of their establishments being defiled by the presence of children from no-wage or low-wage households is increased funding; the stick is the possibility of being fined.

Universities are being encouraged to operate a “contextualised” admissions procedure, that is, to take into account the different backgrounds of applicants. Predictably, this form of affirmative action has been denounced as social engineering, a road to education perdition whereby students with excellent grades are denied a place to ensure an inferior candidate from a housing scheme is a (tainted) recipient of higher education. You can almost hear education’s rednecks roar: “Segregation today, segregation tomorra, segregation forevva!”

Unfortunately, research by Glasgow University shows that students from poverty-afflicted households performed equally as well as their better-off counterparts and – haud the bus! – displayed higher rates of progression into second year. If we weren’t such a class-ridden society, we would welcome this wonderful news by standing up and clapping in a manner that makes a North Korean celebration of Kim’s birthday seem like lukewarm applause. Liz Smith, a former teacher and now the education spokesperson for the Tories, sat firmly on her hands.

Where others heralded greater opportunities for those with fewer life chances, the Conservative conspiracy theorist deemed the whole thing to be an attack on the autonomy of universities. Had she been around in Victorian times, doubtless she would have declared the ending of child labour as an attack on the chimney-sweeping industry.

Ms Smith believes that government’s focus should be on schools. News just in – schools serving poverty-stricken catchment areas invariably have links with universities. For example, the Glasgow Goals project raised pupil awareness of the mere possibility of a tertiary education. Many schools have developed close relations with ex-pupils who have benefited from a university education. These FPs visit their old school in an attempt to light the candle of ambition in children whose lives are often blighted by being brought up in dysfunctional families where education is not valued.

To be fair, in my experience positive discrimination fails to elicit a compassionate response in senior pupils attending relatively prosperous comprehensives. I recall being stunned by a sixth-year girl who blew a gasket when I praised the notion of giving a leg-up to kids enduring difficult circumstances. University entrance should solely be on the basis of objective qualifications, she squealed.

In my opinion, social engineering is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a necessary evil when a fractured society relies on gradualism to right the wrongs it has created.

That universities continue to be no-go areas for the less-well-off embarrasses the nation.