The University of St Andrews has warned that it expects to face a considerable and continuing challenge to widen access, because so few young people from Scotland’s most deprived areas are achieving basic university entry grades.
St Andrews – which has Scotland’s toughest entry requirements – has been repeatedly criticised for admitting just 14 students from the 20 most deprived Scottish (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 20) areas in 2011.
The University said it believed that Scotland now needed a wide societal effort to build a much more resilient culture of attainment, beginning in the nursery years, and it was time to stop demonising higher education for poor progression rates.
In publishing a new target to increase its annual intake of students from SIMD20 areas by 45%, St Andrews said that it had faced a stark choice – lower its academic standards significantly or live with continuing criticism for slow but steady progress to recruit more students from the most deprived areas. An increase of 45% represents just an additional six students per year.
The University said that a Freedom of Information request to the Scottish Government had revealed that of the 8,872 Scottish fifth year pupils from the country’s most deprived areas in 2011, only 220 achieved 3 A Higher passes or better.
Of these 220, 55 included St Andrews as a choice on their UCAS applications. St Andrews made offers to 34 of these students, 14 of whom accepted. In total the university admitted 482 Scottish students in 2011. The number of Scots’ students it admits is strictly capped and controlled by the Scottish Government.
In the general population, the university admits only one in every ten applicants, compared to one in four applicants from deprived areas. Competition for entry is so strong it frequently has to turn away students with 5 As for some courses. St Andrews said it knows from experience that students with any less than 3 As will struggle to pass exams and achieve a degree.
In publishing its outcome agreement commitments for 2012/13, St Andrews however has pledged to redouble its efforts to widen access on a range of fronts:
- Increase the intake of SIMD20 Scottish undergraduate students by 45%.
- Introduce a new Gateway to Computer Science programme for 10 to 15 access students, with guaranteed entry to the 2nd year of a Comp Sci degree for those that fulfil requirements. This builds on the success of the established Gateway to Physics programme at St Andrews.
- A progression agreement with Schools for Higher Education Programme and a commitment to work with the Scottish Wider Access Project.
- Discussions with Dundee College, Adam Smith College and Carnegie College to improve access for students applying to St Andrews via college courses.
- Aim to achieve the quality mark awarded by the Frank Buttle Trust for working with applicants and students with a background of being in care.
- Increase bursary support for Scottish students by £400,000.
- A £7500 annual bursary and guaranteed place to the Dux of every secondary school in Fife who meets entry qualifications.
- Continuing work with summer schools from primary level onwards with Sutton Trust, Reach, First Chances and others.
- Continued prioritisation of student support to maintain a low drop-out rate. St Andrews’ drop-out rate is the lowest in the United Kingdom next to Oxbridge.
Stephen Magee, Vice-Principal with responsibility for admissions at St Andrews, said:
“We have a choice – we can continue to beat up our leading universities for failing to admit more kids from our most deprived areas, or we can start, without shame or blame, to ask if perhaps there is something going wrong throughout the whole equation.
“Our doors are open here in St Andrews. We have been doing contextualised admission for over seven years. We have comprehensive bursary, scholarship and personal support. We are out across the country in schools week in and week out doing our best to attract those with the most potential to come and study in Fife.
“This is not a question of any lack of commitment, will or investment in scholarships and bursaries on our part. We want Scotland’s brightest here, regardless of background.
“We know that we could play the political game and change these figures overnight by lowering our entry grades, but experience tells us that we would simply be admitting these kids to fail, and that would be utterly dishonest.
“If as a nation however we continue to lay responsibility for widening access solely at the door of universities, the challenge will never be properly met. We believe it requires a concerted effort on health, employment, better housing and a stronger culture of attainment at all levels of Scottish education to equip young people with the grades they need to gain entry and to succeed at university.
“It is in all our interests that the best and the brightest are encouraged to fulfil their potential through higher education, and we will not stop working to support societal progress towards social mobility and fairness.″
Note to Editors
The Guardian made a Freedom of Information request to the Scottish Government in Summer 2012 to establish the numbers of pupils from deprived areas in Scotland who sat Highers, and the grades they achieved. Until then, this data was not publicly available to universities. The full data set is now available here:
Issued by the University of St Andrews
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