By Christopher Marshall
Children from poor backgrounds will be able to go to university despite not having the grades under new plans to increase access to higher education in Scotland.
Scotland on Sunday has learned that every university in the country is set to “contextualise” new entrants, taking into account a candidate’s background rather than simply refusing a place based on their academic record. The radical change in the way that universities handle admissions means that some students who fail to get the necessary grades may still win a place based on their background.
The proposal will be contained within a series of “outcome agreements” expected to be published by the Scottish Funding Council this week, which will set out how universities plan to fulfil a series of “asks” from the Scottish Government in return for increased funding.
While the agreements have been finalised for some time, the Scottish Funding Council, which hands out money to universities on behalf of the government, has continually delayed their publication. However, Dundee University’s agreement, seen by Scotland on Sunday, confirms plans to change the way it handles admissions for those applying for the next academic year.
The document states: “The university is in the process of rolling out a contextualised admissions process over the period to 2013-14 designed to take account of the fact that applicants come from different backgrounds and have not all had the same opportunities to realise their academic potential.
“Currently, contextualised admissions is very subject-specific, but during 2012-13 we will review approaches to the use of such systems across Scotland and the UK, and present proposals of the approach we feel would be most appropriate to Dundee.”
Figures published earlier this year by the National Union of Students (NUS) showed Scotland’s leading universities are currently recruiting tiny numbers of students from deprived backgrounds. According to the NUS, St Andrews recruited only 13 students from the most deprived backgrounds in 2010-11 – 2.7 per cent of its student intake.
Just 91 students from the most deprived backgrounds won places at Edinburgh (the equivalent of 5 per cent of all its undergraduates). While there was a similar story at Aberdeen University, where just 51 students came from the most deprived backgrounds – a figure that accounted for 3.1 per cent of undergraduates.
While many universities already have schemes in place to help encourage poorer students to take up a place, this will be the first time there has been a national drive across all institutions.
Universities Scotland, the umbrella body which represents the principals of Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions, confirmed that the subject of contextualised admissions would be in outcome agreements.
A spokeswoman said: “The agreements show that all of Scotland’s universities either have, or will look to introduce, some form of contextualised admissions that takes account of an applicant’s circumstances with the goal of promoting wider access to university.
“All university principals are committed to widening access to pupils that have the academic potential to benefit, and this is one way within universities’ control to help achieve greater progress in this area.
“Contextual admissions is far more subtle than is often recognised. It is not about giving some students an advantage over others. It simply goes a small way towards balancing opportunities that have not been equal for all pupils throughout their schooling.”
Universities Scotland said there would be no “one-size-fits-all” approach, with institutions left to decide how best to take the initiative forward.
While colleges have seen their budgets cut, Scotland’s universities have received a better than expected funding settlement to help close a funding gap with institutions in England.
However, they were warned by the Scottish Funding Council that the money would come with strings attached, while the organisation’s chief executive, Mark Batho, said any university failing to implement their outcome agreement could be fined.
Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said the outcome agreements were the start of a campaign by education secretary Mike Russell to undermine the autonomy of universities, which could lead to legislation forcing institutions to widen access.
She said: “I have no problem with this if it’s universities doing it, but I have every problem with the government attempting to legislate on it. Not only does that reduce the autonomy of universities, but it would be far better if the focus of the policy was at school level rather than at university.”
A number of universities, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, already run schemes which see promising students from poorer backgrounds given extra help during summer schools.
Earlier this year, Glasgow University’s Top-Up scheme was praised after research showed students from working-class backgrounds let into universities with lower grades performed just as well as their middle-class peers and actually had higher rates of progression into second year.
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said: “Despite the myths surrounding it, this isn’t about social engineering, but ensuring genuine fairness and excellence. Widening access, and contextual admissions, is about making sure Scotland’s universities are not missing out on students with the potential to succeed. By failing to look beyond school results, universities would be failing to spot the most talented students. Ultimately, politicians and principals need to be doing their bit to ensure we turn around Scotland’s poor record on fair access.
“Universities’ high ambitions through outcome agreements needs to be matched by the parliament ensuring a secure footing in legislation for them, with proper enforcement to make them achieve their aims.”