Chitra Ramaswamy: Vow to get poor to university melts away

Shocking figures on the inequality of access to higher education must force Nicola Sturgeon to rethink the policy her predecessor set in stone

Alex Salmond unveils the commemorative stone at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh on 18 November, 2014. Picture: SWNS
Alex Salmond unveils the commemorative stone at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh on 18 November, 2014. Picture: SWNS

In 2014, on his last day as First Minister, Alex Salmond unveiled a great hulking stone at Heriot-Watt University. A stone that was closer to an outgoing statement of political intent than a stuffy academic commemoration. On it were some typically bombastic and rather flowery words: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students.”

That year, Nicola Sturgeon, fresh in post, put her own less perfumed stamp on the issue that has dominated the agenda – and heaped criticism on her party – ever since. “I want us to determine now that a child born today in one of our most deprived communities will… have the same chance of going to university as a child born in one of our least deprived communities.” Under Sturgeon’s leadership, in other words, the shameful and long acknowledged attainment gap between rich and poor in Scotland’s education system would narrow. Perhaps even close.

Two years on, not forgetting that we are now nine years into an SNP government, and Scotland remains the worst place in the UK to be a poor student. Last week, figures from admissions body Ucas revealed a fall in the number of 18-year-olds from Scotland’s poorest areas going to university. From the most deprived 20 per cent of areas, there were just 1,215 applicants awarded a university place last year, down from 1,305 the year before. Some of the figures for individual universities, published for the first time, are shocking. Like St Andrews University, Scotland’s 600-year-old bastion of the intellectual elite, placing just 25 18-year-olds from the poorest areas of the country in 2015. Twenty-five people a year. In a university of 8,400 students. Edinburgh University didn’t do much better with 75 poorer students in 2015, when you consider this was a drop from 100 the previous year.

Meanwhile, on the flip side, there was an increase in 18-year-olds from Scotland’s richest areas going to university, rising from 4,605 in 2014 to 4,685. As ever, it is rich people who benefit the most, and the most immediately, from the devastating lack of opportunities experienced by poor people. One person’s social immobility is another person’s springboard. This is how unhappy societies are made.

So never mind the rhetoric about putting education “at the front and centre” of the government’s plans, as Sturgeon pledged during the SNP’s campaign for re-election, the fact is if you are poor in Scotland – and one in ten Scots lives in severe poverty – you are four times less likely to go to university at the age of 18 than if you are rich. (In England, by comparison, the ratio is 2.4.) This is deeply saddening in a country with a supposedly progressive government and a leader who, as last week’s televised EU referendum debate proved once again, presents and is received as a genuine conviction politician. In a country that used to have one of the greatest education systems in the world, it is a scandal.

Why is it happening? Is it down to the SNP’s cap on the number of places allocated to Scots, which has been lifted south of the Border? Or is it the SNP’s flagship policy of no tuition fees, which many claim has failed Scottish students? It’s a complicated issue, which is presumably why it’s been turned into a hot potato to be batted back and forth rather than acted upon. In theory the no-fees commitment makes for a utopian vision of an enlightened Scotland where education is free for all until the sun melts the rocks. In practice it has meant the slashing of grants and bursaries and a widening of the attainment gap. It has meant that Scottish universities, still the breeding grounds for success and well-being, have become middle class institutions. It has meant fewer poor people going into higher education.

Since the SNP took office in 2007 the budget for bursaries and grants has been slashed by £40 million. As recently as March a major scheme to get thousands more poor Scottish pupils to university received a £10m cut. The same year that Salmond inscribed those words on a rock outside an Edinburgh university and Sturgeon set up the Commission on Widening Access to tackle inequality at Scottish universities, official figures revealed the government had cut grants by 40 per cent. The result? Soaring student debt. And the poorer you are, the more debt you accrue.

I graduated from Glasgow University in 2001 with about £8,000 of debt. I took out four student loans, each at the maximum amount and received no grants or bursaries. It was a huge amount of money, then and now as far as I’m concerned, and although I worked full-time from graduation it still took me until well into my thirties to pay it off. In today’s terms, £8,000 of student debt is nothing. Last year, official figures revealed poorer Scottish students face an average debt burden of £24,000, borrowing almost £6,000 a year, about a third higher than wealthier students. It is a frightening amount of money for most people, let alone those from the most deprived 20 per cent of areas. It’s hard to imagine paying off £24,000 by my retirement, let alone my thirties. It is hard to imagine encouraging my son, admittedly now only two (though the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children unfortunately starts at primary school), to take on such a burden.

The First Minister acknowledges there is “work to do” and at Holyrood last week pointed out the figures don’t include students in Scotland “who enter higher education via college” and that “not everybody goes to university goes at 18”. To which, in student speak, my response is pretty much… whatever #eyeroll.

Considering the government has itself put such a focus on increasing the number of poor Scots going to university, this is a cop out. It was Sturgeon, after all, who launched the Commission on Widening Access, whose final report set out a number of targets such as ensuring pupils from the most deprived 20 per cent of areas make up 20 per cent of university places by 2030.

Now is the time to attend to those recommendations and acknowledge that this is a real and shameful problem. And no amount of pretty words carved in stone are going to make it go away.