The gap between rich and poor across the Scottish education system is now one of the pressing political issues in public life. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently urged Scots to judge her on her ability to reduce this gulf in attainment between the country’s have and have-not schools. The problem in Scotland’s universities was thrust into the spotlight yesterday as a Scottish Government-appointed commission released the interim findings of a study which found a “persistent gap” between students from the country’s most deprived communities, and those from more comfortable areas.
A range a measures are set out for further consideration, including a review of the value placed on work placement experience of youngsters from more affluent backgrounds. This is often only secured through the advantage of their parental networks, allowing them to secure internships in the likes of law firms or major financial institutions. The example of US Ivy League universities, which instead ask for a statement of the “diversity” students can bring to an institution rather than simply listing experiences, seems a model worthy of further exploration.
Similarly the “contextual admission” approach, which allows some students from a disadvantaged backgrounds into university with lower grades, has proven successful in the limited number of courses where it has been used in Scotland. But the prospect of a wider roll-out across the country does raise a number of issues. Firstly, the criteria. The report itself points to concerns over the “considerable variance” in the indicators universities will use in looking at what constitutes disadvantage. It is certainly easy enough to look at the school potential students have attended and assess where it stands academically, as well as the socioeconomic standing of its wider catchment area. It may be more difficult when looking at a youngster’s home background. This could be open to manipulation, and parents taking steps to conceal or misrepresent their affairs is nothing knew. And how far can grades legitimately be “adjusted” without jeopardising academic excellence? It has generally just been one or two tariffs, but some evidence suggests this can be considerably higher. Full transparency in all these areas is essential here before progress can be made.
The more telling approach to the problem of closing the gap seems to the First Minister’s determination to tackle it at an earlier age in the country’s classrooms. It is the early years which are deemed to be crucial to a child’s intellectual development. By the time youngsters reach university age, much of the “heavy lifting” has been done in terms of their learning, and policy makers may be better advised to focus on this area.
What cannot be denied is that universities are still performing well below the average in terms of providing access to students from the poorest parts of Scotland. Any success which has been achieved is down to a very small number of institutions. This represents a major waste of potential. University leaders have been conducting a high-profile campaign against government “interference” in new legislation at Holyrood. But this situation is a poor reflection on their ability to get their own house in order.