Scots universities told to drop entry grades for poor students

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Scottish universities must go further in relaxing their entry requirements for students from poorer areas, the country’s higher education tsar has said.

Professor Sir Peter Scott said universities should be “bolder” and “more radical” in dropping the level of grades needed by young people from deprived areas.

The Commissioner for Fair Access, who was appointed by Nicola Sturgeon a year ago, has been tasked with making it easier for poorer students to go to university.

The Scottish Government wants 20 per cent of new entrants to universities and colleges to come from the most deprived parts of Scotland by 2030.

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Figures for 2015-16 show that 14 per cent of full-time degree entrants to university were from the nation’s most deprived areas, an increase of only 0.1 per cent on the previous year.

In his first annual report, Sir Peter makes 23 recommendations with the aim of speeding up progress, including a call for universities to lower their entry requirements still further.

The document cites research by the Sutton Trust showing that reducing entry standards by two grades could lead to a 50 per cent rise in applicants who were formerly eligible for free school meals.

“Making lower offers to applicants from deprived backgrounds is not ‘dumbing down’ entry standards,” his report argues.

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“Not all applicants have the same advantages, in terms of family support or school experience. Making the same offer to everyone is not only unfair; it fails to identify students with the greatest potential.

“Universities need to make much bolder use of contextual admissions.”

Sir Peter also said ministers should consider increasing the number of funded places in higher education to help boost access for poorer students.

Increasing the total number of funded places for all students would help to address fears that some are being “displaced” by deprived applicants, he argued.

The report was welcomed by student leaders, with NUS Scotland vice president for education Jodie Waite suggesting that progress had been “too slow”.

She added: “The current rigid approach to entry requirements ignores the varying disadvantages faced by students from different backgrounds, forcing students to be judged on a level playing field despite the individual barriers they face.”

A spokesman for Universities Scotland said institutions around the country were committed to “levelling the playing field” for students from disadvantaged areas.

“If this can be achieved...without limiting opportunities for kids from middle-class families, many of whom will have had to work hard at school to get their grades, we would be supportive,” he added.

Higher Education Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said the Scottish Government would consider Sir Peter’s recommendations “carefully”.

She added: “Every child, no matter their background, should have an equal chance of going on to higher education.

“Progress is being made, with latest figures showing that a record number of students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland successfully gained a place at university in 2017. But we want to go further, faster.”