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University (Widening Access)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 20th November 2019.

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Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

3. To ask the Scottish Government to what extent its attempts to widen access to university have been effective. (S5O-03783)

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Scotland is widening access to university, with data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service on acceptances showing record high numbers from the most deprived areas of Scotland year after year.

We have a record number of entrants to university with a declared disability, we have improved retention rates for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with care experience, and we have improved outcomes, with more students from deprived backgrounds going on to qualify from university. As the commissioner for fair access, Sir Peter Scott, said in his annual report in June,

“significant and welcome progress has been made” with that agenda.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

The minister will of course be aware that senior academics from the University of Edinburgh have cautioned that the policy of widening access to university for those from Scotland’s most deprived communities based on the Scottish index of multiple deprivation areas is seriously flawed and disproportionately benefits the better-off. Will he review the implementation of the policy? It may currently be too blunt an instrument to effectively target the most disadvantaged.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

As I indicated in my previous answer, the commissioner for fair access, Sir Peter Scott, has said that we are making good progress on this agenda. Indeed, he said that Scotland is setting the pace in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding his comments, the member raises a genuine point: the recent report highlights some issues that the Scottish Government is very keen to take on board.

I take issue, of course, with the comment that our current strategy is seriously flawed—it certainly is not. However, we know that there is a clear relationship between SIMD areas and school attainment and access to university, and we think that it is right to focus on learners from those disadvantaged areas. We appreciate that not everyone who faces multiple social and economic disadvantage lives in those 20 per cent of areas in Scotland; that is why we have established a data working group to examine how we can support learners who do not live in those areas but who face similar social and economic barriers to accessing university.

We recognise that although the system is not absolutely perfect, it is making fantastic progress and people from disadvantaged backgrounds are getting into university in greater numbers than ever before. We are already very close to achieving our 2021 target, and we are being hailed for that by external observers, but there is more to do.