University Applications

– in the Scottish Parliament on 6th February 2018.

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Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

1. To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service recording a fall in university applications by 18-year-olds from the most-deprived areas. (S5T-00913)

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

UCAS figures that were published yesterday show that the number of applicants of all ages from our most-deprived communities, and in particular those in their 20s, is increasing. That is welcome. However, we have also seen a small decrease, of around 70, in applicants who are aged 18, and that is of course of concern. In 2017, we saw a 13 per cent increase in the number of people from the most-deprived communities getting places to study at university. If we are to see a similar increase in 2018, there is clearly is much more work to do.

The commission on widening access made a clear recommendation for universities to try to maximise applications from disadvantaged learners by promoting access thresholds to pupils, parents and teachers. Universities must do all that they can to make learners aware where there are still opportunities to apply before the 30 June deadline.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

It is indeed the case that modest progress has been made in closing that gap. That makes it all the more important that we examine the reasons why that progress appears to have stalled.

In his report late last year, the commissioner for widening access pointed out that not only are students from more-deprived areas less likely to apply, they are also less likely to be accepted or to complete their course. We should be concerned indeed. One factor that Sir Peter Scott identifies is support for living while studying. Does the minister agree that a worthwhile response to those figures would be to restore the cuts to grants that her Government made in 2013?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Mr Gray is absolutely correct to point to the commissioner’s concern about not just who gets into university but who completes it. I have made that concern clear to university and college principals since I became minister, and it is a concern that we are intensifying through our outcome agreements with the universities. When they are making good progress, we will encourage them to keep doing so, and when we believe that they need to pick up the pace of change, not just in access to applications and entrance but in completion rates, we will address that through the outcome agreement process.

The commissioner pointed to a variety of issues that may impact on application, entrance and completion rates; student support was one of them. As Mr Gray knows, the Government has recently increased the income threshold from £17,000 to £19,000, which ensures that an extra 3,000 students will get a non-repayable bursary. We will increase the payment threshold and reduce the payment period for loans. The Government has taken action and will continue to take action to ensure that we support the poorest students at university.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I think that the Government and the minister know that student support matters, as it is one of the factors driving the gap in applications. If the Government did not know that, why would it have commissioned the independent review into student support? However, that review reported, with some modest proposals to improve the circumstances for both higher and further education, back in November 2017. When will the Government respond? “In due course” is not a good enough answer.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

The Government will respond in due course to the review.

I disagree entirely with Mr Gray when he talks about “modest proposals”. As I said to him in the chamber last week, the review is asking us to look in particular at an entitlement to funding for further education students. That would have an implication for their ability to access social security. As I said to Mr Gray last week, we could get into a situation in which the Government makes a rush decision to ensure an entitlement or to make changes to FE bursaries only for the Department for Work and Pensions come along and say, “That’s great—we will now take that money off the benefits from social security.” We are continuing to discuss our progress on the matter with the National Union of Students, and we are discussing progress with the DWP in relation to the interaction between what the review has asked us to do and what the social security benefits system will do, but I will not take action for the sake of an easy headline if, at the end of the day, students would lose out.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

Yesterday, I met the principal of Maxwelltown high school in Dumfries, who told me that students from less privileged backgrounds often take time out of education before going on to university. For example, one student took a year out before enrolling at the University of the West of Scotland for mental health nurse training. She is now attending university, but the numbers do not recognise that. Does the minister agree that there are different routes for young people into higher education and that the figures quoted do not take account of that?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

It is important that we bear in mind the different ways in which people can get into university and indeed higher education at our colleges. It is important to recognise that it may not be the right track for a young person to leave school and go directly into university, and we should respect them and allow them the flexibility in the system to make that decision if it is right for them. That is entirely the point of us looking at the matter through the prism of what is right for the learner and not what is right for the statistics or indeed for institutions. We intend to continue to encourage that approach.

The figures from UCAS suggest that more people of all ages are applying to go to university. The number of Scotland-domiciled applicants aged 21 to 24 has increased by 4 per cent and the number aged 25 and over has increased by 7 per cent. That is welcome news.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

The minister will be aware from the deliberations of the Education and Skills Committee that there are issues to do with careers guidance in schools and that the real focus, if we are going to improve the situation, should be on talking to youngsters who are much younger than the university application age. Does she agree that much more work needs to be done on careers guidance to ensure that, in future, we do not have the patchy advice that the evidence to our committee shows that we have had?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Liz Smith is correct to point to the work that we need to do long before we get to young people sitting with application forms. This is about encouraging young people to decide what is right for them and recognising that success for them may be an apprenticeship, going to college or going to university: it is about what they want to achieve and the best way for them to achieve that.

An important aspect of that is careers guidance, and a great deal of work is continuing to ensure that we are getting better careers guidance out there and getting the message out, not just to the young people but to teachers, parents and anyone who has an influence on their decisions, about the parity of esteem that we should hold for the different opportunities that are available to our young people, university being an important one of those.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

How does the number of applicants to Scottish higher education institutions compare with the number of applicants in the rest of the United Kingdom? Does the increase in the number of non-European Union international applicants have an impact on the places that are available for students applying from Scotland?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

The number of applicants to Scottish higher education institutions has increased by 1 per cent to 114,160, and that includes a 13 per cent increase in the number of non-EU international applicants. It is something that we can be exceptionally proud of as a country, and our universities should take great pride in the fact, that we have seen an increase in the number of non-EU international applicants.

The number of non-EU international applicants has no impact on the number of places that are available for Scottish students. Scotland-domiciled students, those from the rest of the UK, those from the EU and international students all play equally pivotal roles in making our campuses the proud and diverse campuses that they are today.