Record-breaking number of Scots students get into university

More than 28,000 Scottish applicants celebrated getting to university on a record-breaking day of exam results which saw the highest ever proportion of 18-year-olds entering higher education.

Picture:  Lisa Ferguson
Picture: Lisa Ferguson

In total 28,300 candidates of all ages were accepted into higher education as results for the full range of Scottish qualifications were delivered to 140,055 students across the country.

The rising number of people making it to university was welcomed by educational institutions and politicians, but the results could not disguise significant challenges facing the schools system.

According to higher education admissions body Ucas, school-leavers from the most prosperous backgrounds are four times as likely to gain university entrance as their counterparts from the poorest areas.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to close the “attainment gap”, which sees rich children outperform the less privileged.

Ucas said 12,600 18-year-olds were placed in higher education, a number that was unchanged from last year despite the population falling by 2.2 per cent.

The proportion of young people entering higher education, the ‘entry rate’, has increased to 21.3 per cent, the highest level recorded on Scottish results day.

But when it came to 18-year-olds from the poorest areas the entry rate was far lower, standing at 8.8 per cent (a 0.6 per cent improvement on the previous year).

Last night shadow education secretary Liz Smith said: “While there are some signs of modest Improvement, these statistics show that there remains a huge gap in the attainment levels of pupils from rich and poorer backgrounds.

“The First Minister has staked her whole reputation on closing the gap completely. She has much to do to prove that there is not the same gap between her words and her actions.”

Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: “This data shows that the attainment gap remains stubbornly wide in Scotland and that a young person’s opportunity to get on in life still has more to do with how much their parents earn. That’s not fair and these figures should remain a cause of real concern for John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon if cutting the gap between the richest and the rest really is their top priority.

“Labour will continue to make the case for a 50p top rate of tax on those earning more than £150,000 a year to invest in closing the attainment gap.”

The success of the 28,300 candidates making it to university represented a 5 per cent increase on the previous year. Almost all (27,400) were placed at a Scottish university or college.

Ucas said most of the increase in successful Scottish applicants came from the older age groups with an extra 1,000 accepted among Scottish applicants aged 20 and over.

Older candidates made a major contribution to the 5 per cent increase in applicants of all ages from the most deprived areas attaining higher education.

In the most impoverished areas 3,770 candidates of all ages made it to university, an increase of 170 on last year.

The arrival of results via email, text message or conventional mail to 140,055 students also identified a slight fall in the pass rate for the new Higher exams.

This year was the first in which all schools took part in the new Higher exam which was partially introduced last year.

Last year about half of Scotland’s schools sat the new Higher, which was introduced as part of the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence programme.

This year 77.2 per cent of those who sat the new Higher exams got a grade A, B or C. That compared with 79.2 per cent who achieved those grades at the schools offering the new exam last year.

Scotland’s examination board the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) pointed out that the percentage pass or attainment rate for those sitting the old Higher last year came to 76.7 per cent. 

According to Dr Gill Stewart, SQA director of qualifications, this year’s attainment rate of 77.2 per cent fell in between the rates recorded last year for the old and new exams.

Therefore this year’s pass rate was statistically “broadly similar” to previous years.

It was also the first year that pupils sat the new Advanced Higher with 81.7 per cent of pupils achieving a C or better.

The results obtained by younger pupils sitting the National Five tests, which are seen as a stepping stone to Highers, saw students do significantly better at English than Maths.

The proportion of National Five pupils to achieve a grade C or better in English came to 86.8 per cent compared with just 63.2 per cent who got the equivalent result in Maths.

Dr Stewart said the strong performance in English was down to the emphasis put on literacy by the Curriculum for Excellence from primary school through to secondary.

The relatively poor performance in Maths could be explained by the fact that many pupils for whom Maths is not so strong sit the National Five because the exam is a gateway into higher education.

The results also saw a fall in the pass rate for the Scottish Baccalaureate, the exam introduced by the Scottish Government for exceptional pupils at the end of their school career.

The pass rate fell from 80.3 per cent last year to 73.6 per cent this year. Once more, very few pupils decided to sit the exam with just 140 taking the paper this year – a slight increase from the 122 who sat it last year.