Christy O’Hanlon


Glasgow’s industrial and “blue-collar” roots are scattered all around our city, to the extent that it’s almost difficult to ignore the tumultuous relationship the city has had with poverty both past and present. In a country that hosts some of the oldest universities in the world, it is evident to see that education through the years has been used as a means to bridge a gap and bring people from different socio-economic backgrounds together; however, education in Scotland has also had the power to create division between people and increase the widening gaps between some of our wealthiest and poorest in the country. The irony that such an affluent and distinguished university sits within such close proximity to some of the poorest areas in Scotland begs the question: are we doing enough to make the higher education system appealing, and most importantly accessible, to people from areas and backgrounds with less privilege and lower attainment? Are we doing the utmost to support and integrate said students into an education system that was previously not attainable to us?  

The higher education system has existed in Scotland since the 15th century, with Scottish universities being some of the oldest in the world. Originally, the higher education system in Scotland was only attainable to the middle and upper classes of Scottish society. This continued until approximately the 18th century, during the Scottish Enlightenment period when a university education in Scotland was said to be amongst one of the most accessible in Europe due to its lower attendance fees and higher social representation. A similar reputation still currently exists for Scottish universities, thanks to the Scottish government’s decision in 2007 to abolish tuition fees for Scottish and EU citizens. This wonderful piece of legislation has opened the doors of higher education to students across the country and has levelled the playing field in the game of education, meaning that university, on paper, should be attainable to everyone regardless of socio-economic standing. But, how accurate is this?

A recent press release from the Social Mobility Commission states that “class privilege remains entrenched as social mobility stagnates”. The government report showed that people educated in private schools and Oxbridge have created a “closed shop at the top”. Generations of individuals in positions and jobs of power come from the same background as those before them, which has created a cycle in Britain that strongly maintains the class divide. Is it possible that these ideals are still present in our current education system in Scotland? In 2010, the University of St Andrews – a popular choice for English public-school students after the attendance of Prince William – came under fire as it accepted only 13 people from the most deprived backgrounds out of over 7,000 undergraduates. This study, conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) across Scottish universities using freedom of information requests, revealed that two other ancient universities in Scotland – Edinburgh and Aberdeen – accepted a measly 91 and 51 “poor” students (based on their postal code) out of a total of 17,570 and 12,195 undergraduate students. These universities have responded to the report by defending their record, insisting that they were working towards increasing outreach work, bursaries, targeting poorer students, and were actively investigating new ways of improving recruitment. These statements bear truth as, since 2010, Scottish universities have introduced multiple schemes to increase not only acceptance rates of working class students, but their interest in higher education to begin with. The University of Glasgow has been at the forefront of this by creating schemes such as TopUp. Designed in 1999, Glasgow University’s TopUp programme has several main priorities that aim to make the transition from high school to university a smooth one for young students. The University of Glasgow works with schools with generally low attainment to promote interest and aspiration for study in higher education in under-represented groups. They aid students with their application process and also create fairer entry requirements for students residing in postal codes with high levels of poverty. The TopUp programme has also provided students with the opportunity of participating in a summer school initiative.  

Similar programmes have also been provided by most universities in Scotland, including St Andrews, Edinburgh, and Dundee. These initiatives aim to provide students with the tools to prepare themselves and adjust accordingly to university life – support and skills which may not have been available to them if from low-attainment schools. I’ll hold my hands up in saying that due to coming from an area with high levels of poverty (and wanting to produce an article that was beefier than an episode of Eastenders), I found myself clutching at straws when writing this piece. Trying to gain any information on why universities in Scotland might be exclusive to students like me who are from working class backgrounds and areas of low attainment? Spoiler: I struggled. It seems that in the last 10 years, despite our current political climate in Britain suggesting otherwise, the Scottish government is taking steps to ensure that our campuses are much more diverse and representative of the society it serves. The truth is that, in Scotland, young people from low-attainment schools and impoverished areas are more likely than ever to apply to university according to recent UCAS figures. And in a city like Glasgow, which is so weighted with poverty and working class culture, it is so refreshing to see that education is being used with the correct intentions in mind. Not to widen an already gaping gap that lies between those born into privilege and those who aren’t, but to provide everybody with the same tools to pave their own way to triumph and success.

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