Hugh Reilly: University challenge should be open to all

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FOR upwardly-mobile individuals wishing to acquire a posh Home Counties accent, watching University Challenge and listening to students of St Andrews introducing themselves is compulsory viewing.

From time to time, a token Scot is wheeled on and given a cameo role – non-speaking lest his guid Scots tongue offends southern sensibilities. All hope of hearing a Glasgow accent on the programme lies with one of our “new” universities entering the competition.

In a shocking development that eclipsed news of a bear being caught short in a tree-filled environment, statistics emerged last week which showed kids from deprived backgrounds continued to be denied access to higher education.

Ironically, in ostensibly the land of the “lad o’ pairts”, only a miserable 27.2 per cent of new students came from social class groups 4 to 7 (the UK average is 30.6 per cent).

The appalling Scottish average figure hid the embarrassing variation between Scottish academic institutions. St Andrews, patronised by royalty and other opulent tax avoiders, allowed its elite student population to be diluted with 15 per cent of children born of lowly commoners, while Edinburgh opened its doors a smidgeon more to children of forelock-tuggers, permitting a whacking 17 per cent to stride through its impressive portals.

Things weren’t so grim up north – Aberdeen struck a blow for meritocracy by having an undergraduate roll with 25 per cent drawn from poor families.

Rather than admit culpability, apologist spokespersons for ancient universities defended their penchant for admitting students from independent and top-performing state schools. “It’s not our fault – a big poor boy did come but ran away!”

They pointed out that the percentage of poor children attending university had increased by more than 1 per cent. Yeah, the march towards equality of opportunity in education has suddenly picked up alarming pace.

To be fair, blame for the country’s education apartheid lies not solely with our universities. In many schools, there is a poverty of ambition in kids who could potentially benefit from a university education. In schools serving deprived communities, pupils often perceive a job to be the main goal.

They settle for less, accepting an apprenticeship or a college course when they could, in the eyes of their teachers, complete an honours degree.

In my last year of teaching, tears ran over my heart when a bright boy told me he had secured a place at a college to do “uniform studies”. Obtaining a certificate is this course was apparently helpful in becoming a policeman. Convincing him to rethink his future was as pointless as asking Donald Trump for humility.

In other cases, families talk their teenagers out of higher education, perhaps fearful of the financial cost. There are no tuition fees – and generous bursaries are available to the poorest students – but some cash-strapped parents dislike the idea of their child being out of the labour market for four or more years.

Stories of hordes of unemployed graduates simply add grist to the mill. This attitude is in stark contrast to that found in better-off households, where the notion of going to university is instilled into a child at an early age. In a Modern Studies Intermediate 2 programme made by BBC Scotland, a Mary Erskine girl explains how daddy had showed her round Glasgow yoonie when she was barely out of nappies. She points out that it was expected that every girl in her fee-paying school should go to university.

By contrast, the programme looks at a girl from Glasgow’s Royston who struggles to overcome hardship. Sadly, after airing it in my classes, few kids aspired to follow the path of the Erskine “gel”. “Ah don’t want tae end up aw snobby like hur,” was a familiar refrain.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Glasgow City Council‘s Goals project raised expectations among kids with undesirable postcodes. Some universities now run outreach schemes. Perhaps more importantly, Mike Russell has made it clear that the Scottish Government is not willing to tolerate the status quo. He recently challenged universities to improve the balance of their student bodies or face financial penalties. Perchance, the gong has just sounded for the end of discrimination in our tertiary education system.