University access for the disadvantaged

Just as English universities prepare to charge high tuition fees and consequently deal with the new Office for Fair Access (OFFA), statistics for Scotland have shown that, notwithstanding the absence of tuition fees, Scottish universities admit fewer students from socio-economically deprived groups than their English counterparts. According to a report in the Herald newspaper, just over 25 per cent of  students studying in Scotland come from lower socio-economic groups, compared with 30 per cent in the UK as a whole. There are complex issues at stake, and statements made by Universities Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council have pointed out some of them. But the fact remains that the position in Scotland is not satisfactory.

One of the problems with publicly funded higher education that is free to students is that it limits the resources that could be spent on programmes to support disadvantaged students. Free higher education leads to a large investment in the education of comparatively wealthy people, and relatively few additional resources to target disadvantage, particularly in schools. As resources become scarce this effect is aggravated. The experience in Ireland has also been that the abolition of tuition fees has not produced a noticeable benefit for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose participation levels have not particularly improved since fees were removed over 15 years ago.

Those who have voiced dissatisfaction with these figures are right to do so. But the solution will only lie in increased and targeted financial support. Most of that will need to be provided by the taxpayer, with some room for funds built up from philanthropy.  The issue requires urgent attention.

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10 Comments on “University access for the disadvantaged”


  1. […] “Just as English universities prepare to charge high tuition fees and consequently deal with the new Office for Fair Access (OFFA), statistics for Scotland have shown that, notwithstanding the absence of tuition fees, Scottish universities admit fewer students from socio-economically deprived groups than their English counterparts …” (more) […]

  2. Eugene Gath Says:

    An important statistic that is missing here is the percentage of people in Scotland that are socio-economically disadvantaged versus ther percentage in England.

  3. Kevin Denny Says:

    yes & the key word is “targeted” because its not obvious where you target it. So yes you should target it at the people who you are trying to help – low SES.
    That sounds uncontroversial although its the opposite of what the policy did.
    The main question is how do you target those concerned? Because you don’t become disadvantaged at 18. It kicks in much earlier and accumulates. The evidence in general points to earlier interventions providing a better return. So if you want to help 18 year olds get to college you really need to spend money on them when they were 4 year olds. Jim Heckman (Chicago & also UCD) has been developing research on these lines for some time now.
    This is a hard policy to sell because it seems so indirect. It seems much more natural to spend money on, say, increasing the Higher Education grant. However the evidence in general suggest that this is not a deal-breaker. Its not thats its bad of itself but there are better uses for the money (which is increasingly scarce).
    My own view, which I repeat ad nauseam, is that the elephant room is our schools. We know that different schools produce different results, we know some are better and this has huge effects on childrens lives but we don’t really know why. Are private schools better? Maybe, maybe not. Is it class size? Maybe, but probably not.
    And there is little attempt to redress this inequality. Indeed how differently schools do is a state secret (breaching it can lead to jail I believe). As long as society is comfortable with this educational apartheid one should expect changes in educational inequality to remain glacial.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Again, like Kevin, I do not wish to sound like a stuck record. But given the argument that introducing fees = greater equality in 3rd level (FvP’s consistent position) I have yet to see an outline of an actual mechanism that leads to this outcome, in either the Irish (or Scottish) environment. As usual, vague talk of help for the ‘disadvantaged’, but no specifics, policy mechanisms, numbers or exploration of anticipated or non-anticipated outcomes.

      And at the same time we have many European countries that have either negligible fees at 3rd level (eg Sweden, the best performing economy in Europe, according to some measures) or relatively low fees (Germany, also not exactly an economic laggard). I never see any analysis here of how these apparently-doomed European education systems seem to be able to operate (albeit they don’t produce the high-level “league table” performers with whom we are obsessed, presumably because they speak the wrong language).

      But please don’t bring us down the same-old ‘fees are inevitable because there is no other option, and anyway they are more egalitarian than free education’ cul-de-sac again!

    • Mary B Says:

      It could be said that the other ‘elephant’ is the commodification of HE. If only individuals regarded as high academic achievers got in (as used to be the case) you would pick up bright kids from ‘disdavantaged’ backgrounds. I was one in the 1970s – a working class kid who went to Oxford and there were quite a few of us there (I didn’t enjoy the experience but that’s another story). Widening access has not encouraged disadvantaged people to apply unless they are very clever/driven, and such people will probably always progress. Instead HEIs are ticking boxes to get people in on the basis that university education will improve their (employment) skills. Since this is manifestly not true,the ‘disadvantaged’ are not impressed. I agree with the person who said the problem starts with schools and I have no idea how one solves it, but in many schools there is a culture of anarchy, and staff appear afraid to set rules of conduct – I had to remove my son from one such when we came to Scotland – not that England is any better in this regard. It’s just not cool in these places to be interested in learning and peer pressure ensures compliance to this view. You might say we live in what Robert Bly called a sibling society – no links sorry – where adults are not confident in taking on a parental role. We don’t need a return to the past – the dangers of trusting authority figures regardless are now emerging in various church and education scandals about child abuse, but we do need IMO more effort in getting children and families to accept responsibility – and not just disadvantaged ones. Reading this makes me sound like a Conservative and I’m actually an ageing hippy – but at least we hippies used to value intellectual endeavour ;o)

  4. Vincent Says:

    I’m moving to a less benign view of moneys given to Universities for the disadvantaged. I feel it would be far better that it arrived much lower in the system. At kindergarten and above.
    Are the UK schools holding as intransigent a position about the intake numbers to uni’ that the Irish teachers unions hold.


    • There is a good point there, Vincent – we know that funds invested in pre-school are the most effective in fixing social disadvantage. We still need some resources at third level too, though.

  5. Cormac Says:

    Is 25% not a reasonable figure, given the complex barriers faced by students from disadvantaged backgrounds? How does it compare with Ireland?


    • It’s probably roughly comparable. But in Scotland the figure hasn’t risen as fees/contributions were abolished, and that was the case in Ireland too. Curiously in England the figure *has* risen, despite fees.


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