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.