Scottish universities demand clarity on return, as gap between richest and poorest children in higher education widens

University chiefs are demanding a route map for when classroom teaching can return in the next academic year, as new polling finds 80 per cent of students believe online studies have negatively affected their mental health.

The principals of Scotland’s universities have said that student well-being has reached a “tipping point” and there is a risk to their academic progression if they cannot return to lecture halls.

Their demand for a “clear plan” from the Scottish Government comes as new school leaver statistics show the number of young people moving into higher education has risen in the past year, however more than twice as many from Scotland's least deprived areas are continuing to study compared to those from the poorest areas.

The government figures also show the number of teenagers finding work after school reached its lowest level last year, with the Covid pandemic hitting job prospects.

The number of young people leaving school for higher education has increased, but the gap between the richest and poorest students doing so, is wide.

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Overall a total of 92.2 per cent of those who left school in 2019/20 went on to a “positive destination” such as college, university, training or job by April 2021, down from 92.9 per cent the previous year.

A total of 42.9 per cent went on to study a higher education course, up from 38.4 per cent in 2018/19.

However, just 27 per cent of young people from the most deprived parts of Scotland went on to study at HND or a higher qualification level, compared to 62.6 per cent from the most affluent areas.

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Despite more young people moving on to higher education last year, the university sector is warning of a risk to student progression as a result of a lack of clarity over when in class teaching can begin after a year of lockdown.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “University students have shown tremendous resilience in spite of all the disruptions to their education and wider way of life, but we’re concerned that we’re reaching a tipping point in regard to student well-being and risk to progression unless we can move ahead to a more normal student learning experience in the early autumn.

"Access to education, at all levels, should be a priority as society re-opens.”

He added: “Universities need clarity within the next couple of weeks about what Scottish Government’s Covid guidance will be for the new term. Students need clarity that they can expect a step-change in access to safe in-person teaching.

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"It’s not a case of simply throwing open the shutters. Universities have to timetable the education of over 250,000 students and hundreds if not thousands of different degree programme configurations and then set up classrooms and labs according to whatever distancing is required. It’s a gargantuan operation.

“Above all, we want a clear plan from government and we feel students deserve as much certainty as it is possible to give.

"We need the Scottish Government to give our students, our staff and the institutions themselves clarity about what next academic year is likely to look like, according to where the country is likely to be with the route map and to know how to run our classes if Scotland finds itself in any of the levels from 0-3.”

Polling of more than 500 students at Scotland’s universities has shown 76 per cent want the majority of learning to take place face to face in the next academic year, with 73 per cent believing the restrictions on “in-person learning” had a negative impact on their anxiety.

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A total of 80 per cent said their personal progress had suffered. Further, 90 per cent felt they would be missing out on important aspects of university if there were still restrictions in place next academic year.

Mr Sim said many university applicants had already accepted offers to study from September, to meet a June 10 deadline from application body UCAS, but still did not know how much in-teaching they could expect.

He added that universities needed at least eight weeks to plan timetables for degree programmes for over 215,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students and reconfigure university estates in time for students to start. Pre-session students also have no details on physical distancing arrangements.

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said it was the Scottish Government's intention to “enable in-person provision to the extent consistent with the safety of staff and students, in line with Scotland's overall response to Covid-19”.

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She said: “The Scottish Government remains grateful to staff and students for their continued patience, understanding and support as we progress towards greater normality.

“The extent of vaccine roll-out and the expected impact on transmission rates mean that we are hopeful that the student experience in the autumn will look more normal, although there will still need to be measures in place that help to prevent transmission.”

Meanwhile opposition parties have raised concerns about the school leaver destination statistics.

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Beatrice Wishart, said the government had to speed up the delivery of a job guarantee for every 16 to 24-year-old as the number of school leavers in employment had fallen sharply from 28 to 21.3 per cent.

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Ms Wishart said: “We know how important the first few years after leaving school can be for setting people on a path for life. The Scottish Government has failed to make a serious dent in closing the attainment gap and now it is failing those who want to go straight from school into a job.

“Most worryingly there has been a noticeable rise in the number of young people who are unemployed and not looking for work.

"The Scottish Government needs to expand support for apprenticeships, offer jobs through public agencies and deliver new programmes for the creative industries to ensure that no one gets left out in the cold.”

Scottish Conservative education spokesman, Oliver Mundell, said: “These figures show that despite the First Minister’s promise to close the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils, it has barely budged since she took office.

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“Progress was too slow before the pandemic and it’s now ground to a halt.

“The pandemic has only exacerbated the deep problems the SNP have created in Scotland’s schools. They can’t hide behind Covid to explain their failures.”

And Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman added: “With pupils from the most deprived areas still less likely to access higher education, it is clear that much more must be done to tackle the inequality in our education system. It is all too clear that the pandemic has exacerbated inequality and it is of paramount importance that the SQA and Scottish Government re-think their unfair appeals process to avoid enshrining inequality further in Scottish education.”

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