A key Scottish Government adviser has likened class discrimination that sees poor students outperformed by their rich equivalents with “institutional racism”.
The comparison was made in a report to ministers identifying that poor students have higher drop out rates, achieve less at university and end up in less prestigious jobs than their better-off classmates.
The document by Commissioner for Fair Access Professor Sir Peter Scott also suggests Nicola Sturgeon should set universities the target of ensuring that the poorest achieve the same outcomes from higher education as the most privileged by 2030.
Sir Peter admitted that meeting that challenge would be a “tough call” given the disparity between rich and poor in his document. While Higher Education minister Shirley-Anne Somerville admitted the inequality was “shocking”.
In a commentary for his discussion paper “Retention, Outcomes and Destinations”, Sir Peter said was now “commonplace” to recognise the “hidden power” of gender discrimination.
“Everyone accepts some forms of status, achievement and performance are ‘gendered’,” he wrote. “The same is true of class and culture. Second, it is also commonplace to talk about ‘institutional racism’ that is so deeply entrenched it may go unrecognised. But there is a reluctance to accept the same is true of class
“However much support they receive during their time at college or university, they still suffer discrimination. Not so many enjoy the positive reinforcement of families and peers that helps stop more socially privileged students dropping out. Faced with competing social, and maybe financial pressures, they need more resilience to stay the course. Far fewer have the ‘middle-class’ habits, and actual social connections, that smooth the paths into professional jobs.”
His paper noted that retention rates - the percentage of students who successfully progress from their first to second year – is five percentage points lower for the poorest students.
The poorest were less likely to get honours degrees with the percentage graduating with unclassified degrees up 15 percentage points on better off students.
The proportion of poor students graduating with a 2:1 degree or better was around 15 percentage points lower.
The percentage of those looking for work who found professional level jobs was consistently lower for graduates from the poorest backgrounds - by around five percentage points.
Sir Peter said more needed to be invested in supporting under-privileged students and overcoming the obstacles they face.
Shadow Education Secretary Liz Smith said: “Rather than setting artificial targets the policy focus should be on ensuring that there is sufficient bursary support for those students from the poorest backgrounds.
“Although a little progress has been made in Scotland, we still lag behind other parts of the UK when it comes to bursaries, something that has resulted from the weakness in the SNP’s funding structures for higher education.”
Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: “This paper confirms that young people from the poorest backgrounds are less likely to go on to university in the first place, then less likely to stay the course and then less likely to achieve an honours degree. Indeed retention rates for poorer students have worsened.
“While the Commissioner identifies a number of factors where students need further support, a key one has to be financial support to live while studying.
“Ever since the SNP cut grants and bursaries we have argued that the current system is weighted too heavily towards loans.
“Today in Scotland those who start with the least end up owing the most. That’s unfair and stops far too many young people gaining a degree. Labour supports free tuition but it has to be backed up by proper cost of living student support.”
Ms Somerville said: “This report brings in to sharp focus the extent and the range of the barriers which result in students from the most deprived backgrounds experiencing inequality at every step of their journey through university and into adult life.
“The Commissioner sets out a timely challenge to us all to do more to address this shocking inequality. Certainly I accept that challenge on behalf of the Government and would encourage universities to do likewise.”