A Freedom of Information request by the National Union of Students in Scotland has revealed a shocking disparity in the numbers of students from different backgrounds being accepted by the most prestigious Scottish universities.
The figures, measured using the government’s Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, classed students coming from any of the least affluent 20% of postcode areas as from a poorer background. In spite of this relatively wide classification, the shocking results showed that prestigious St Andrews University admitted just thirteen of these students, against a total of 7,370 undergraduate students.
Other highly respected Scottish universities such as Edinburgh and Aberdeen were also left red-faced by the investigation, which showed that they also recruited fewer than 100 students from poorer backgrounds, though Dundee and Glasgow Universities had a better admissions balance.
Though the universities in question were quick to defend themselves, claiming great outreach initiatives and attempts to attract poorer students, the figures raise serious questions about the accessibility of university to students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
Recently, discussion of such issues has centred largely on England, where tuition fees have soared to £9000 per year, causing fears of inequality and class segregation in the higher education system, so it is both ironic and extremely worrying that the same problems should be mirrored at top Scottish institutions, where students still pay lower levels of tuition fees compared to their English counterparts.
The defence of the universities, as usual, was to stress that outreach and access schemes run by higher education institutions can only do so much in isolation, and that wider social support is necessary to encourage students from poorer backgrounds to apply to university in the first place. But such an argument, though it may account for some inequality in admissions statistics, surely falls far short of managing to explain such a stark divide as that revealed by the statistics at St Andrews university, where a paltry thirteen students from such backgrounds were admitted.
Once again, we are forced to ask whether we are hurtling towards a financially driven system where the rich get the best degrees from the most prestigious institutions, going on to take advantage of their education to get the best jobs, thus drawing the higher education sector into a vicious circle of social immobility and stagnation.