Robin Parker: Underprivileged students deserve to have a better chance

IN THE years since devolution we have achieved some great things for Scotland’s students: the abolition of tuition fees; protection of places at colleges and universities; protection of the education maintenance allowance (EMA); and from next year we are due to see increases in student support.

Yet despite all this, we still have a very poor record on encouraging students from our most deprived communities into our universities.

That’s why NUS Scotland has launched our report, Unlocking Scotland’s Potential, to show where we are failing, but, more importantly, to show where we can improve. There are deep-rooted inequalities in Scotland, and our school system too often reflects that, but our report shows that there’s far more to fair access than just blaming poverty.

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After all, we’ve seen some improvements in poverty levels, and improvements in the school results of our most deprived pupils, but with little corresponding improvements in access to university by the most deprived students. There are great examples, from highly regarded universities in England, which prove that, far from dumbing down our universities, fair access can actually improve standards, with those from the most deprived backgrounds (even those with lower school grades), at least matching, and often outperforming, students from more privileged backgrounds.

And there’s much that universities can do. Summer schools, alternative admissions and routes for applicants to “top-up” school grades work. While some of these are happening in pockets in Scotland, they’re just not being done on a large enough scale.

We have a real opportunity to make fairer access a reality. Universities need to hugely expand work on fair access at the local level, and government must back this up with legislation at the national level.

We want to work with universities, and all interested parties, to make our higher education system much more reflective of Scotland’s population and I hope this report, Unlocking Scotland’s Potential, marks the start of that work.

• Robin Parker is president of NUS Scotland.