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The letter of guidance that I sent to the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council on 8 February was clear that there must be
“no diminution in efforts to widen access.”
It is my clear expectation that the number of students from poorer backgrounds who access university education will increase. I am aware of the indicative allocations that the Scottish funding council issued, and we will discuss further with it how the allocations enable us to realise our core ambition on access.
Last month’s budget announcement indicated that higher education funding would drop by £36 million, or 3.3 per cent, and the funding council has suggested that the fourth tranche of additional undergraduate places will not be allocated to universities next year for the widening access scheme. The Scottish National Party Government has stated categorically that one of its priorities is to help deprived young people into higher education, yet what I described shows that the opposite is happening. Given the evidence that young people from deprived areas of Scotland are half as likely to attend university as their peers in England are, is the cabinet secretary proud of the Government’s record?
I am proud that, during the SNP Scottish Government’s term of office, we have had more people from deprived communities leaving higher education with qualifications. The proportion of young people from deprived communities who will have benefited from free higher education by the time they are 30 has increased. In 2007-08, that proportion was 35 per cent, and it has now increased to 42 per cent.
It is a shame that Mr Johnstone fails to recognise that, for the fifth year in a row, the Government is investing more than £1 billion in higher education. My letter to the funding council makes it perfectly clear that we want to go further and faster in our ambitions for widening access. The recommendations from Dame Ruth Silver and the widening access commission are imminent, and they will inform us all about how to move forward and make systemic and lasting change to improve the widening of access.