Imagine you were in 6th year at school in Scotland. The year before, you have done well in your Highers and achieved 3 As and 2 Bs. Thanks to this, you are able to apply to the University of Edinburgh with a fairly reasonable hope of being accepted. The personal statement looks good, you have a good reference but when Edinburgh (finally) gives their offers, you miss out. Later on you find out that your friend who lives in a poorer area on a lower income has just been given an offer, despite only getting 1 A, 3 Bs and a C…
Right now, this situation is fairly unlikely, but according to a new report by the Commission for Wider Access, this could soon be the case as Scottish universities need to make more of an effort to take in disadvantaged pupils.
The report was commissioned by First Minister and social justice warrior Nicola Sturgeon in 2014 with the aim of finding a way to give every pupil in Scotland an equal chance of attending university to further progress their education.
Unsurprisingly, the response has been fairly mixed from other political parties. Whilst the SNP welcomed the report, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems both said that “The two most important ways to tackle the access issue is to narrow the attainment gap in schools and provide much better financial support for students from poorer backgrounds – both of which the SNP has failed to do.
“We know that the attainment gap between the richest and poorest children has grown under the SNP. And we know that investment in the earliest years is proven to make a fundamental difference when it comes to improving a child’s life chances. That is why we need to focus our efforts on making a transformational change in early learning.” Liam McArthur MSP, Lib Dem Education Spokesman
As a 6th year student coming to the end of the university application process, I completely agree with the opposition standpoint.
To some extent, some Scottish universities already have systems in place to help disadvantaged pupils. The University of Edinburgh, for example, uses a points-based system which puts Scottish private school pupils at a heavy disadvantage. They take into account your schooling background, but not so much your family income.
This meant that I was rejected, despite achieving better grades than some who received offers, both from state school backgrounds and international students. However, I cannot say the rejection email from Edinburgh came as much of a shock to me…
This is something that Edinburgh as an independent university chose to do itself. However, if the recommendations for the report were to become law, then all universities in Scotland would be expected to put a system in place to make sure that 20% of the intake is of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
All this will do is squeeze out the unfortunate middle. No one has a say in where they get to grow up and the proposed system would simply mean that either the already overcrowded universities spend more to accept more students or some people who have met the entrance requirements will simply be rejected in favour of some who have met lower requirements.
Personally, I, like most others, strongly support the idea of equal opportunities for all. However, this form of positive discrimination to help those less off is not the right situation. As someone experiencing the university application process, I can easily see how students would feel if they discovered they had lost a place at their dream university to someone with lower grades…
So, instead of making it easier for some to reach the entry requirements, how about you give everyone the same opportunity to reach the tougher standards?
Quite simply, if areas of the state school sector were better funded and better managed, performance levels in the struggling schools would improve and suddenly, more Scottish pupils would have an equal opportunity to attend university, no matter where in the country they were born.
The fact is that if a child has not received an adequate education, then they are always going to struggle. Universities usually set entry requirements to match the difficulty of the course; by lowering this for some, either you end up with struggling students or universities that are forced to drop the standard of their courses to accommodate everyone.
The solution this report offers is one that would largely take money out of the pockets of the universities, not the government. Instead, however, it would appear as though the SNP need to seriously consider taking steps to improve attainment in all state schools. After all, this can only benefit the pupil whereas giving them an easier route to university could then be detrimental to traits like confidence whilst not always benefiting their education.
What’s more, focusing on improving education standards means that no one is negatively affected. Changes to university entry requirements would almost certainly mean that at least one prospective student would fail to get the place they deserve and would get under the current system.
The SNP have yet to comment on whether they will follow any of the 34 recommendations made by the report, although the upcoming publication of their manifesto for May’s Holyrood election should give us an indication as to the direction Sturgeon plans to take Scottish education.
At a time when ministers crave performance figures similar to South Korea and Singapore, it would appear as though the simple answer to give everyone an equal chance of attending university is to bring the quality of education in line across the country. Importantly, that does not mean bringing down the quality of some schools, but improving all others so that everyone competes of the same competitive benchmark.
Yes this may be idealistic, but the point of reports like this is to be so, and to set targets that we should strive towards. The report in question seems to only offer the easy way out, without addressing the key issue which actually creates the imbalance in the first place. Bring everyone in line and suddenly there is no realistic imbalance to worry about.
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