Access to higher education, class war and the middle classes
The Scottish government’s pre-legislative paper, Putting Learners at the Centre: Delivering our Ambitions for post-16 Education, contains a commitment to develop access to universities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is how the issue is addressed in the paper (para. 74):
‘We will consider placing a statutory duty on institutions to seek out those with the greatest potential who would be identified with reference to their grades and their situation. Institutions would then have to demonstrate how they are handling these ‘contextualised admissions’. Support would be available from the SFC-funded Schools for Higher Education Programme which would help universities to engage with target schools. A targeting scheme could form one of the ways for an institution to meet the obligations set out in the outcome agreement described above. To assist and incentivise this, we could explore a derogation on the capping system that would allow universities to over-recruit students from [disadvantaged] backgrounds.’
However, this proposal has drawn fire from the Conservative Party, who according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper have argued that ‘middle-class youngsters will lose out as a university funding crisis means it is unlikely more places will be available to accommodate the extra influx.’
So what should one make of this? Is a university education in the first instance the property of the wealthier sections of society, and if there is a constraint on the number of university places, do the middle classes have a right of first refusal? Do we really need to see access programmes as being unfair to the better off?
One of the key requirements for an equitable and stable society is that it provides genuine equal opportunities for all people regardless of background. Education is the main driver of opportunities, and those who do not have easy access to schools with the greatest resources should still have the same chance for higher education as the wealthy. As they will often not have enjoyed the same educational advantages at school it is likely that their examination performance, no matter how talented they are, will be less impressive. This is what makes the case for what the paper calls ‘contextualised admissions’.
I strongly support this particular initiative by the government, and I hope that it will not be distracted by such criticism.