By Dominic Nolan
Correspondent, Economics and International Relations Undergraduate Student
All is not as it appears in Scottish higher education, a system which is held up as a bastion of social progressiveness by many. Scotland is the only nation of the United Kingdom which does not charge its students tuition fees, which some have argued means that students will get into university solely based on their own merits. But below the surface, the reality is more complicated. In fact, many have argued that the Scottish ‘meritocracy’ is heavily skewed in favour of those who have access to a private education, meaning that the policy of keeping university free disproportionately benefits richer students.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) found in 2013/14 that Scotland performs below the UK average of attracting first time degree entrants from poorer backgrounds to university. Only 26.8 percent of students in Scotland come from poorer backgrounds, as opposed to the UK’s national average of 32.6 percent. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland that figure is 33.1 percent, 30.2 percent and 39.5 percent respectively.
Percent of low income univeristy students by nation
Contrary to the ideal of Scotland being a bastion for social mobility in a fee-ridden UK, Scotland is a nation in which the poorest continue to be under-represented at university level compared to their rich counterparts. Indeed, this gap is actually widening. Research by UCAS has found that from 2013-14 the number of students coming from the poorest backgrounds rose by just 0.2 percent in Scotland, compared to 2.2 percent in England.
Students from the rest of the UK (RUK) will be aware of the Scottish Government’s somewhat hypocritical position where it claims that education should be free for all, yet is willing to accept fees from RUK and non-European Union international students. As this non-fee paying category also includes EU students, Scottish universities have been turning away Scottish students in favour of Europeans, who have seen their application numbers soar with the prospect of a free university education.
Professor Robert Wright from Strathclyde University found that the proportion of EU students in Scotland almost doubled over the period from 2002/3 to 2012/13, from 4.5 percent to 8.7 percent, far a higher rate of increase than in the rest of the UK. This policy on tuition fees arguably increases competition for poorer Scots to go to university, as universities may not discriminate between Scottish and EU students. This means that poorer Scottish students are having to compete with their privately educated and wealthier counterparts for university places both nationally and internationally.
The benefits of free tuition fees are still being felt, however, but not by those they are intended to help.
The benefits of free tuition fees are still being felt, however, but not by those they are intended to help. While Scotland’s poorest are still not going to university in great numbers, free tuition is being enjoyed by the wealthy. The Government’s policy has brought Scotland to a position where the education of the rich is being paid for through the taxes of the poorest, and also through public service cuts. For those poorer Scots who cannot get into university, the option of a college placement has also been snatched away as availability has plummeted.
Between 2009/10 and 2012/13 the number of Scottish college students fell from 347,336 to 238,805, in line with budget cuts, despite the Scottish Government continuing to underspend its overall budget. This represents a loss of more than one million teaching hours. Clearly Scottish further education options have been slashed so as to pay for this flawed flagship policy of free tuition, further reducing opportunities for social mobility.
Many Scottish universities, such as the University St Andrews, have always struggled with a reputations of being institutions for the wealthy, but is it their fault?
St Andrews’ Principal Louise Richardson told The Guardian that: “The issue isn’t one of highly selective universities not having an interest in attracting kids from deprived backgrounds… The problem is that so few kids from deprived backgrounds meet our entry requirements.”
In fact, many have argued that the Scottish ‘meritocracy’ is heavily skewed in favour of those who have access to a private education, meaning that the policy of keeping university free disproportionately benefits richer students.
St Andrews has faced criticism for not doing enough to bring in students from poorer backgrounds, but all of Scotland’s universities can only do so much when the educational gap between rich and poor is so ingrained in the school classroom.
In 2014, four of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas saw no students from the poorest backgrounds get three As at Higher level, which is necessary to get into most Scottish universities. The gap between rich and poor Scottish students’ exam results is widening, just as the gap between Scotland and England’s number of poor students going to university is widening in favour of the English.
In 2011 2.5 percent of Scotland’s poorest 20 percent of students got a result of 3 As at Higher, compared to 17.4 percent of the richest 20 percent. In 2014 this gap had widened to 2.99 percent of the poorest 20 percent and 21.13 percent of the richest. Universities cannot be blamed for the gap in the admittance of rich and poor students, given they treat all equally based on their exam results.
Percent of Scottish students in 2011/14 who achieved 3 As at Higher
Universities are being presented with a pool of applicants in which the poorest school-leavers in Scotland are at a disadvantage, as they go through a system which is seeing them increasingly fall behind their richer classmates. The problem of universities not accepting enough poorer students can only be fixed by fixing the failing schooling system first.
Shortly before his retirement as First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond unveiled a sandstone rock at Heriot-Watt University with the inscription: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students.”
Perhaps Mr. Salmond may keep his promise to ensure that no Scot ever pays for university, but it appears this policy takes no account as to whether poorer Scots would be attending university at all. As it stands, the Scottish policy of free tuition fees is not aiding social mobility, but exacerbating inequality. While students may not be asked to pay a monetary cost for their higher education, society will have to pay the cost of leaving their poorest behind.
As it stands, the Scottish policy of free tuition fees is not aiding social mobility, but exacerbating inequality.
The truth is that too often poorer Scots are in no position to benefit from free tuition fees, and this policy serves simply as a burdensome pay out to richer students.
Feature image courtesy of The Scotsman
Graphics by Devon Maloney