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Scotland: Universities dismiss idea of easier entry for poorer students

Scotland’s university principals have rejected proposals to widen access by lowering entry requirements for poorer students.

The National Union of Students (NUS) said it was time for universities to sign up to legally binding and enforceable widening access agreements, along with the use of “differential offers” to increase the participation of those from deprived backgrounds.

Figures released by the NUS showed the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and St Andrews are recruiting just one student from the most deprived backgrounds for every 16 from the most affluent homes. But the body representing principals, Universities Scotland, said institutions were already working hard to encourage applications from the poorest students, and said it was up to individual institutions to set their own entry requirements.

Next month, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) will begin publishing “outcome agreements” which will require universities to widen access in return for a generous funding settlement from the Scottish Government. However, it is unlikely the measures will go as far as telling universities to lower entry requirements for students from poorer backgrounds.

Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said: “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.”

While some Scottish universities already offer special admission routes to allow poorer applicants to “top up” their grades, the NUS said it wanted institutions to follow the lead of a small number of those in England where different entry requirements have been introduced depending on an applicant’s school.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “Universities seek to recognise potential as well as attainment in their admissions processes.

“They make use of contextual information as well as grades and UCAS tariff scores, and institutions typically offer top-up or bridging schools for those whose potential may not be fully reflected in exam results. “Decisions on admissions have to rest with universities, and universities need to decide how best to evaluate candidates’ academic potential.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government added: “To ensure that Scottish students can take up university places based on their ability to learn, not their ability to pay, access agreements will be included in forthcoming legislation on post-16 education.

“It will be up to universities to consider how best to meet these agreements, and there are already a number of good examples of institutions working with students from deprived areas around the country.”

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