“Positive discrimination”. It’s a tricky business. Say these two words individually and everybody is fairly content in their understanding of the implications; combine them and watch as people’s faces contort in expression of the sudden argument that springs up inside them. It is exactly this kind of confusion and conflict that can be seen in the growing debate concerning Scottish universities’ (poor) representation of students from the most deprived parts of the country.
The Scottish Government aim to have the poorest 20% of students making up 20% of undergraduate places by 2030, in a bid to improve equality of education across the classes.This drive comes after a report published by the Sutton Trust in May revealed that Scots from the fifth most advantaged areas are four times more likely to attend university than those from the fifth least advantaged areas.
The Commission on Widening Access, set up by Nicola Sturgeon to tackle this growing problem, published their final report, “Blueprint for Fairness” in March, outlining 34 core recommendations for improving widened access to higher education. They focus on a collaborative approach between education institutions to address what the chair Dame Ruth Silver calls “a whole system problem.” To achieve change the report suggests more supportive partnership programmes with schools to encourage earlier interest in higher education, as well as reserving a portion of university spaces with adjusted grade requirements for students who are classed as being from a “priority postcode”, as established by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.
And so we return to that crucial phrase, “positive discrimination”, and the controversy begins. In order to genuinely widen access under the current Scottish system, and to see growth in the number of university places held by disadvantaged students, there will inevitably be a “squeezing out” of students from more affluent backgrounds – even when they have higher grades. The cap on places due to the SNP’s policy of free tuition means universities can only admit a certain quota of Scottish domiciled students per year, regardless of how many may be deserving of a place. This, alongside the recent cuts there have been to bursaries – down from £65 million to £63.5 million in the last year – is making it increasingly difficult to attain a place at university. Unless the cap on spaces is scrapped then the system will be unfair to not only those haven’t received the right encouragement or tuition in schools, but also those who have, and who achieved the required grades to be accepted.
The idea that some students may be able to get into university with lower grade requirements has caused plenty of heated debate already. And perhaps there is a small part of me that would sympathise with such upset, having worked rather hard to meet targets to get where I am today. Yet we have to look at the facts here; we aren’t just “letting anybody in”, like angry online commenters might suggest. In actual fact, the adjusted requirements aren’t much lower at all. Take our own university for example, which has been heralded for leading the way in widening access. Alongside participation in “Top-Up” and “Access Glasgow” programmes, they suggest attainment of AABB alongside completion of a summer school for most colleges, compared to the regular requirements of AAAA. In Medicine, Vet Med and Dentistry, there is less pressure on required work experience, something poorer students would almost certainly have limited access to. In short, people with adjusted requirements will be accepted because they have the potential to achieve and go on to great things, just like their more affluent counterparts.
Despite a meagre 2% rise in 18 year olds from “priority postcodes” applying through UCAS last year, if we look at the bigger picture, more noticeable improvements can be seen, specifically in the 65% rise in the last 10 years. In a country with 22% of its children classed as living in poverty last year, we cannot expect this to be a problem solved overnight. It is too deeply rooted in every facet of society, in everything that a child comes into contact with long before even considering university, for it to be an easy fix.
This “20% of undergraduate places” quota the government hopes to have in place by 2030 has me a little on the fence: ultimately, it sounds too simple. Indeed the interventionist approach is probably the only way to see real improvements for the next generations. Yet, I can’t help but feel uneasy for those “middle class” students who will be displaced – despite having the right grades – because of the cap on spaces. Because it won’t really be equality, will it? Instead, we will merely be accommodating one underrepresented faction in order to create another one.