Leaders: Fear of debt holding back those from poorer homes

University of Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
University of Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
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IT HAS to be that one of the central characteristics of a good and fair society is that young people are given the opportunity to achieve their true potential reagrdless of the wealth of their parents.

There must be very few people who do not believe that widening the opportunities for poorer students is something to which we should collectively aspire.

So it is concerning, if not particulalry suprising, that analysis of official data shows the overall proportion of disadvantaged students starting at the elite Russell Group of universities has largely stalled in the past 10 years.

The group of 24 universities - which includes the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow - says it is making progress, but it cannot solve the problem alone. It is obviously right in that.

Around one in six students from lower social groups started a course at a Russell Group institution last year, compared with nearly one in three of their wealthier peers.

So it would appear that there has been no real significant change in the last ten years. This is not the only recent study to tell us that social mobility is decling not increasing. Clearly more has to be done.

That cannot be about universities lowering their standards, but there probably has to be an admission that people from disadvanatged backgrounds have a harder job to compete. The programme that sees people able to begin their education in colleges and then, once succesfully attaining course standards, move on to universities is to be applauded and all that can be done to extend it should be pursued.

But it may be that there are more practical measures that can be taken.

In its report State of the Nation 2015: Social Mobility and Child Poverty in Great Britain, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission shone a light on a restriction to access that was far more prevalent in Scotland than the rest of the UK.

The report said that evidence highlighted in the Commission on Widening Access interim report showed that Scottish students are far more likely than their peers to live in the family home while studying: more than half of Scottish students live at home compared to less than one-third of other UK students, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds most likely to live at home.

The research suggests that this is due to Scottish students being more debt-averse than young people elsewhere in the UK; with many young people seeing loans to support their living costs as a ‘last resort’, in part due to misconceptions about student debt and how it is repaid.

It concluded “young people in Scotland may well be making less than optimal decisions about their future because they do not have access to accurate and detailed advice and guidance on student finance”.

So despite the absence of tuition fees here for students it may well be the case that family economics are playing a huge part in blocking access to the more disadvantaged young people, and that if more consideration was given to relieving that, it may be some help in achieving the outcome most want to see.

Ending the mental health stigma

We are often told that death is the last taboo, and that while we are now prepared to talk openly about every other difficult subject under the sun, end-of-life issues remain off limits unless discussion is absolutely necessary. It’s not true, of course. There are plenty of other taboos still out there, and mental health remains a no-go area. Children’s mental health is an even bigger unmentionable.

Breaking a taboo is exceptionally difficult and takes time, but the decision of the Duchess of Cambridge to speak out on this issue is a welcome intervention in the battle to change attitudes and bring out into the open the kind of problems that will never be properly addressed if we dare not speak their name.

Just how unsatisfactory the situation is has been demonstrated by the Duchess in her call to have children’s mental health to be viewed as just as important as their physical health. Of course it is. But to acknowledge that there is a difference confirms that mental health is not taken seriously enough.

Mental health is difficult enough for adults to recognise in themselves, and then acknowledge. For children with no knowledge that the condition even exists, it is so much harder to deal with the unknown. The Duchess points out that children have to deal with “complex problems without the emotional resilience, language or confidence to ask for help”.

Problems encountered in childhood present an increased likelihood of them being around for life, if not tackled early on. Children who are wrestling with issues they cannot explain need our help if they are to stand a chance.

The Duchess has put the spotlight on the problem, but changing attitudes is now up to all of us. We have to end the stigma.