Lesley Riddoch: University quotas can’t fix economic inequality

Middle class white children have no entitlement to go to university and universities need to widen access. Picture: Jane Barlow
Middle class white children have no entitlement to go to university and universities need to widen access. Picture: Jane Barlow
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There are dangers in regarding a university education as the essence of a dependable, well-rounded citizen, writes Lesley Riddoch

Scotland’s newly appointed access czar has fairly set the cat amongst the pigeons.

Sir Peter Scott – Scotland’s Commissioner for Fair Access – says middle class pupils with strong exam results have no “entitlement” to go to university and warns of a danger in recruiting students solely on the basis of good grades. He wants Scotland’s four ancient universities to become ‘fully engaged’ in widening access – a thinly veiled rebuke to Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews and Aberdeen for failing to act swiftly or boldly enough in recruiting students from poor socio-economic backgrounds.

There’s no question Scotland’s university attainment gap is closing at a glacial pace. But are quotas for poor kids the best solution or might that just further entrench a university education as the gold standard of personal achievement whilst access remains restricted for working class kids – in short the worst of both worlds?

Earlier this year, a report found 18-year-old Scots from the most deprived fifth of communities are still four times less likely to go to university than those at the top of the wealth scale. New figures from the admissions service UCAS show the wealth gap amongst students has narrowed by just 4 per cent in 10 years. That’s slow.

Of course, some argue the attainment gap doesn’t matter, the best already reach the top and kids from deprived backgrounds are unlikely to become academic whizz kids.

For such folk, it’s probably pointless to demonstrate that working class students thrive at university after extra coaching and lower entrance requirements and just as pointless to observe that academically gifted pupils quickly come croppers if they lack the resilience needed to cope with the demands of university life. It’s also true that social mixing at school and university turns out decision makers with greater tolerance and a broad understanding of life – not a narrow, class or gender-blinkered perspective. Finally, the Brexit and Trump victories demonstrate that those excluded from life’s advantages find their own way of sticking two fingers up at the unreachable elite. Social solidarity matters and whilst it’s higher in Scotland than England it’s nowhere near Nordic levels – not because their quota system works better, but because there are no quotas. Nordic society works by reducing the income gap in the knowledge that educational attainment correlates strongly with income inequality. Dear old Scotland baulks at louping that tough hurdle – desiring equality but maybe not that much. Scared to dismantle the top-down, winner-takes-all outlook of Britain for a consciously equalising Nordic model.

So Scotland sits betwixt and between – using tests and quotas to patch up the predictable failings of the most unequal society in the OECD. And we are forced to conduct an important debate about access to education, advantage, entitlement and equity with one important option off the table.

Perhaps the SNP fears the wrath of middle class voters? If so it’s too late – the suggestion middle-class children might not roll directly from high school to university has already provoked anger amongst parents, some of whom have moved heaven and earth to get their children into a good school, into university and thus on to the conveyor belt of entitlement. It’s common knowledge that families from poorer areas of Edinburgh may rent a flat for six months in a better catchment area to get their child into a good school with a more certain path to university and thereby the best chance of a secure future in this unstable world.

At the weekend private tuition service, First Tutors, reported that demand for coaching amongst primary and secondary school pupils has almost doubled in Scotland over the past five years (up 91 per cent). Does that rise prove academic standards have declined and parents lack faith in the Curriculum for Excellence? Or do they suggest that the fight for a place at university is now so intense that parents believe any extra advantage is worth grabbing for their child? Even if that produces a generation of homework drones, whose out of school lives are dominated by academic work interrupted only by the odd bit of Duke of Edinburgh award CV-enhancing activity.

But back to Sir Peter’s warnings. There are indeed dangers to social cohesion if Scottish universities continue to create entitled environments of middle class white kids. But there are also dangers regarding a university education as the essence of a dependable, well-rounded citizen.

It’s not necessarily true. In 1985, I arrived at BBC Radio Scotland as one of the first ever trainees in a newsroom of non-graduates. One of my first jobs was to try and tidy up the grammar of the late lamented Kenny Mcintyre – one of the finest reporters I’ve ever worked with. It was a futile exercise. He didn’t care about grammar – and neither listeners nor BBC management cared about Kenny’s split infinitives or inconsistent plurals. He produced more scoops on vitally important stories than I had tutorials amongst the dreaming spires. Cannily opting to remain freelance he also earned more than the university-educated editor. He was tenacious, street-wise and much-mourned when he died at far too early an age in 1999.

In his Guardian obituary, Brian Wilson wrote: “Kenny Macintyre was a native of Tobermory in the Isle of Mull. His father, Angus Macintyre, was the local bank manager who wrote Gaelic verse and was widely held to have kept the whole island economy afloat during the harsh post-war decades through the liberal distribution of character-based credit. Kenny was very much a product of that close, classless society in which people were valued only by their true worth. While his two brothers pursued distinguished academic careers, he stayed on Mull to set up a small building company. When [it] failed, Kenny looked to broadcasting.”

And never looked back.

Would that have been possible today? The more university education becomes essential, the more college-educated folk and school leavers are excluded from the most responsible jobs. Is that fair or even wise?

Quotas in higher education increasingly look like a stop-gap measure which nonetheless draw so much flak from the “entitled” that onlookers believe something radical is taking place. But quotas alone cannot tackle the economic inequality which is the principle, never-ending source of the attainment gap at every level of education in Scotland.

Let’s hope one day soon the SNP will pay attention to the cause, not just the scene of our inequality accidents.