Dani Garavelli: End two-tier schooling to widen access to universities

Students in red gowns from the University of St Andrews walk along the harbour wall. Entry requirements in all universities have risen as competition has increased. Picture: Jane Barlow
Students in red gowns from the University of St Andrews walk along the harbour wall. Entry requirements in all universities have risen as competition has increased. Picture: Jane Barlow
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PROPOSALS to lower entry requirements for pupils from the most deprived areas of Scotland risk creating new problems for our education system, writes Dani Garavelli

As pupils in East Renfrewshire enter their Higher exam year, they are gripped by a mania, perpetuated by those around them, in which securing a place at a “good” university is the Holy Grail, and all perspective is lost as they pursue it.

There is little point in encouraging the less well-off to go to university unless you make it economically viable

For 12 months, their lives are dominated by study charts and assessments and their desks are a maelstrom of highlighters, paperclips and revision cards. All conversation revolves around grades; and yet grades are only part of the equation. If they are applying for the likes of law or medicine, they also have to demonstrate their engagement in extra-curricular activities. So they sign up for Duke of Edinburgh or volunteer at their local scout hall in order to have something impressive to write on their personal statements.

As a parent, the experience induces a sense of self-loathing because, of course, you want your child to succeed, but you are aware the system is stacked in their favour at the expense of others. Getting good grades is easier when you have been brought up in an environment where education is valued, just as securing a placement within the National Health Service (a must if you want to do medicine) is easier if your parents are doctors and you’re not working nights at McDonald’s.

Those who have gone through the application process will not be surprised to learn that 18-year-olds from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds in Scotland are still four times less likely to go to university than those from the 20 per cent least deprived backgrounds.

In parts of Glasgow the prospect of any pupil gaining five As is as remote as the prospect of them spending their summer building an orphanage in Malawi.

This is patently unfair yet, despite successive Scottish governments investing in initiatives to encourage poorer students, progress has been glacial. So the proposal that entry requirements should be lowered for students from deprived backgrounds made by the Silver Commission on Widening Access is to be welcomed, even if – like gender quotas – it is a policy born of failure; and even if it means some middle-class children will be squeezed out to make way for working-class ones.

The idea is not without its pitfalls. Universities are already complaining that the demand for lower-access thresholds undermines their autonomy. So the changes should be implemented with care. If they are forced through, with none of the potential traps addressed, they are likely to backfire.

The problem is not that lowering the entry requirements means a lowering of standards. Anyone who applied for university in the 1980s knows they are now much higher than necessary to succeed on degree courses because it’s the easiest way to whittle down applications in the face of increased competition. But those with the highest grades may not be those with the greatest potential, nor are they more likely to stay the distance. Indeed East Renfrewshire has a high drop-out rate. So a system that contextualises applications would be more equitable and effective.

There are other aspects of the Silver Commission report, however, that are more challenging. How, for example, are universities to judge disadvantage? The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), which seems to be the preferred yardstick, is chiefly a measure of urban poverty, though there is poverty in rural areas too. In other words, not everyone who is deprived lives in an SIMD area and not everyone who lives in an SIMD area is deprived. The merest hint that wealthy kids were benefiting from a geographical loophole would result in uproar.

Then there is the question of how students from underprivileged backgrounds will be supported. There is little point in encouraging the less well-off to go to university unless you make it economically viable, but the amount paid out to poorer students in bursaries has gone down in recent years as cash has been siphoned off to pay for free tuition.

While not unsympathetic to the idea, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, an expert on student funding, points out that if the access threshold is lowered for deprived students, and no extra places are provided, there will be greater demand for the remaining ones and entry requirements will become even more stringent.

The pupils most likely to meet those requirements will continue to be those from private schools and places such as East Renfrewshire, while the ones most likely to be squeezed out are teenagers from fairly ordinary backgrounds who might themselves benefit from a bit of support.

On the other hand, if the number of funded places were to increase, how would this be paid for? Introducing tuition fees is not an option for the SNP thanks to Alex Salmond’s “the rocks will melt with the sun” stunt. The Silver Commission suggests more places could be funded by removing “unnecessary duplication of study years”. This could mean cutting the number of pupils who do a 6th year, but academics say Advanced Highers, already under threat as a result of the Curriculum for Excellence, foster independent learning. Encouraging working-class pupils to go to university from 5th year, then, might lead to a rise in drop-out rates.

The most pressing concern is that lowering the entry requirements for disadvantaged students might deflect attention away from early intervention programmes and the social apartheid within the existing school system. When the educational gap between those from the most and least deprived areas is already entrenched by Primary 1, is it realistic to expect universities to fix it?

Lowering entry requirements is a reasonable approach when all else has failed, but in an ideal world the playing field would be levelled much earlier and academically able pupils from all social backgrounds would have an equal shot at attaining whatever grades our universities demanded.