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A new NUS Scotland report into widening access in Scotland has shown the need for urgent action to improve the numbers of people from poorer backgrounds at Scottish universities.
Unlocking Scotland's Potential: Promoting Fairer Access to Higher Education, outlines that Scotland has the worst rates for widening access in the UK.
Last month NUS Scotland released statistics from the report which showed very few people from poorer backgrounds at some institutions, including that only 13 people from the most deprived backgrounds in Scotland were recruited by the University of St Andrews in 2011.
At current rates it would take 40 years to reach fair and representative access in Scotland.
Across Scotland, for every one student from the most deprived background recruited to university, there are 2.5 students from the least deprived background. However, at our institutions with the worst records on widening access (Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St Andrews), the ratio reaches 1 to 16.4 of most deprived to least deprived. At St Andrews the ratio reaches 1:28
It is by no means the rule that deprivation levels dictate participation rates, with many constituencies with high levels of deprivation with good records in terms of sending pupils to HE and vice versa.
Universities know what works to increase access
The report finds that universities know what works - they're just not doing it on a large enough scale. The report praises best practice in England, and to some extent Scotland, at a number of elite universities which have led on introducing alternative admissions schemes.
These universities have found that people from more deprived backgrounds accepted with lower grades, had their grades “topped up”, or admitted through summer schools, can at least match, and often outperform, counterparts with higher grades from less deprived backgrounds.
While some of this practice exists at Scottish institutions, most notably at the University of Glasgow and with LEAPS in Edinburgh, many are on a small scale or not focussed on the most deprived people in Scotland.
The report calls on the Scottish Parliament to introduce enforceable widening access agreements with Scottish universities, and for universities to hugely scale-up their widening access work, including differential offers, routes for applicants to “top-up” school grades and larger-scale summer schools.
Robin Parker, NUS Scotland President, said: "Universities can't do it all when it comes to fair access, but they can clearly do a great deal more.
"Our report shows that our universities are clearly missing out on people with huge potential from our most deprived communities.
"The most positive thing out of the report is that we know what works, and it highlights best practice at some universities which has seen students from poorer backgrounds, even those with lower grades, outperform those from better off backgrounds.
"Achieving fair access is therefore not about some kind of social engineering or charity, it's about getting the best people into our precious university places.
"If universities fail on widening access, they're failing on their most central of missions - getting the most talented people into university.
"Universities will rightly receive huge increases in public funding over the coming years. In return, they must make sure that university is open to talented people from all parts of Scotland.
"While protecting free education, and improving student support, opens the door to achieving fair access, the Scottish Parliament must introduce legally binding and enforceable widening access agreements to challenge our universities to do more.
"And Scottish universities must do their bit. Scotland needs people with the most potential to get places at our universities. If we can't hold a mirror to our universities and see Scottish society then something is very wrong."