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Making the most of the nation’s young talent

First published as an Agenda article in the Herald, John makes the argument for fairer access to higher education.

Imagine a race where some participants were running uphill, some downhill and some on the flat. Even if every participant achieved the same time we would all agree that the ones running uphill might have a bit more talent for running.

Race finishThat is the simple version of what is usually labelled “contextualised admissions”. Pupils who get university entrance grades from some backgrounds have run up far steeper hills than others. If we ignore that fact we are wasting talent and being unfair to some young people who deserve to be at university.

Last week the social mobility think-tank, the Sutton Trust, published a report looking at university admissions amongst the UK’s most selective universities. This week, the Scottish Funding Council has published a report from the University of Durham’s highly respected School of Applied Social Sciences. We asked the report’s authors to look at how Scotland could ensure that university admissions systems do not perpetuate the disadvantages learners have faced earlier in life.

Our study shows that universities recognise that high achieving pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds perform exceptionally well against the odds. However, it also argues that they could be much bolder in their approach to admitting disadvantaged applicants to their courses. One of the most interesting findings is that Scotland’s most highly selective universities could set their entry requirements for disadvantaged applicants much lower and still retain a high probability of those students successfully completing their course. This begs two other questions, of course, but the report looks at them as well.

The first question is how you identify disadvantage. Here it recommends a set of characteristics that include spending time in care, being a long term carer, receiving free school meals, receiving an Education Maintenance Allowance or being a refugee or asylum seeker.

The second question is how universities support students from disadvantaged backgrounds to help make sure they reach their full potential. The term “widening access”, which is often how we talk about fair opportunities in education, only goes half way. At the Scottish Funding Council we talk about access and retention to remind ourselves that the work isn’t done once the figures show more disadvantaged applicants are starting courses. This doesn’t mean special treatment, it means that they get support according to their needs, which should be a given for all students.

Nicola Sturgeon could not have been any clearer in 2014 when she said that a child born in one of Scotland’s most deprived communities should have the same chance of going to university as one born into one of Scotland’s least deprived communities. It’s an ambition steeped in fairness and equality, and schools, colleges and universities are working with agencies like us to ensure that happens.

I believe that recognising that a disadvantaged young person who performs well at school despite, for example, a poor diet, lack of a suitable space to work, a lack of books, the absence of a role model and often much more deserves the chance of a university education as much as the highly performing pupil with none of those disadvantages. In a nutshell, I believe that equal exam results do not always represent equal potential. Accepting the status quo – which the Scottish Funding Council has no intention of doing – is to risk losing the talents and skills of young people who have a great deal to contribute to Scotland’s future. No one wants to do that.

John Kemp, Interim Chief Executive of the Scottish Funding Council - 2 Nov 2017