Glasgow’s Widening Participation programme should be applauded – but alone, it is simply not enough


Credit: Dora Pongracz

Jennifer Bowey

“The University of Glasgow has always been, and always will be, interested in your potential rather than circumstance or background.” This is the message that greets you when you visit the Widening Participation section of the Glasgow University website. The Widening Participation scheme is designed to provide students from less advantaged backgrounds with support in gaining a place at the University. This is a particularly positive programme for Glasgow University to be running; it is a member of the prestigious Russell Group of Universities which, despite being highly regarded for their research and academic excellence, has a long history of accepting primarily wealthy, privately educated students.

The University provides a number of different Widening Participation schemes, including programmes that work with children throughout years 1-6 of secondary school, a “Top-Up” programme which helps students develop many of the key skills they will need when studying at university level, and a six week Summer School that helps to sufficiently prepare future students for university life. Crucially, most of these schemes can also potentially result in lowered entry requirements for participating students.

Running programmes like these is an excellent way to provide a much wider variety of students, who are not from the “standard” middle class background, with the opportunity to realise their potential, and get a foot through the door of higher education. Many students who have not been privileged enough to receive a private education or live in an area with a top notch state school, would find securing a place at university considerably more difficult without such programmes. Such programmes should absolutely continue to be endorsed, funded and developed by institutions such as ours.

In 2015, I attended the six week Summer School programme as a part of my conditional offer of a place at Glasgow University. Over the course of the six weeks a close knit group of students was formed through meeting in classes and in the provided accommodation. At the time this was incredibly encouraging, however, on arriving at university in September, I was somewhat disappointed that my preconceived ideas of university life were not realised. I, perhaps naively, had expected my situation to be much the same as it had been during the summer. The reality of undergraduate study is that you are one person amongst tens of thousands – not a part of a small, close community as had been suggested.

Despite this initial difficulty, I did eventually settle in and establish a new group of friends who I still remain close to now. In hindsight, this was merely a minor complication in what was ultimately a brilliant opportunity for me and one that without which, I would not be studying at Glasgow. The Summer School genuinely helped to prepare me for the standard of work that would be expected of me at university, and introduced me to being away from home. I felt settled almost immediately and less homesick when it came to moving in September – when taking a leap into what was very much the unknown, the programme helped to minimise my fears.

Despite the University of Glasgow providing these inclusive programmes, and encouraging students from diverse backgrounds to apply, this support all but dries up as soon as you are actually admitted. A whole new set of problems arise on arrival at university, the most prominent of which are financial, yet unfortunately, these are ultimately left unacknowledged.

Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) provides different levels of financial support based on household income, the lowest of which is £4,750, for those with an income of £34,000 or above. Given that a household income of £34,000 is not particularly high in comparison to countless students whose parents earn upwards of £100,000, it is easy to see how many students are left short of money. In fact, all that needs to be done to see that this money is insufficient is to look at the prices of Glasgow University’s accommodation. The cheapest University owned accommodation available is a shared room in Cairncross House for £3,524 and most of the other accommodation options cost nearly, or more than, the full £4,750.

Another largely unaddressed facet of the living costs all students face is the price of reading lists. On top of rent, transport costs, food and clothes costs students are required to purchase numerous compulsory set texts for each of the subjects they are studying. Despite a limited number of discounted bundles being sold in the John Smith Bookshop, and the limited number of second hand texts in the SRC’s own bookshop, the majority of students must source the books individually and it is rare to find prices that one could describe as affordable, especially when specific editions are often required.

As English Literature is one of my subjects, and with the knowledge that approximately ten texts are studied per semester in first and second year, it is only to be expected that a reasonable amount of money must be put aside for the purchase of books. What is surprising, however, is that many other subjects that are not literature based, such as Economics, require students to spend even more money on books. With a single textbook potentially costing upwards of £50, it is easy to see why many students are simply unable to afford all of the recommended texts for their courses, thus leaving them at a further disadvantage. No estimated prices are released prior to starting a degree, thus leaving many students vastly unprepared for the expense, and there are no reading list bursary opportunities – it is simply a case of finding the money, or going without.

Ultimately, what all of this means is that despite Glasgow University’s best efforts to include students from more diverse backgrounds, there are still vast, and largely unaddressed obstacles that stand in the way of these students realistically being able undertake four years of study. Whether it is the price of accommodation that need to be re-evaluated, or the amount of money available in the form of student loans or grants, it is clear that more still needs to be done to fully provide these students with the same opportunity as their wealthier counterparts: just getting us through the door simply isn’t enough. What is indisputable, however, is that the Widening Participation programmes that Glasgow University offer are a step in the right direction.