Scottish higher education should be for all, not the gilded few
The Guardian, by Kevin McKenna
Social and political conservatives will always find a reason to repudiate any notions of widening university access to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. They will hold on grimly to the assertion that increasing admissions from deprived areas will make it more difficult for middle-class children to reach the places that were previously reserved for them from before they were born. Conservatives have their own weasel word for this process; they call it “displacement”.
What they really mean is that the privileges affluent children have enjoyed for centuries may be put at risk by giving privileges to poorer children. We will hear more people talking about “displacement” in the next few weeks as we begin to digest figures released last week by Ucas, the university admissions body.
These figures show that the gap between the numbers of rich and poor students in Scotland attending university has widened once more. We have now entered the 11th year of SNP power in Scotland and the attainment gap, the territory on which Nicola Sturgeon asked us to judge her and her party at the ballot box, shows no signs of contracting.
The figures show that under 10% of new admissions to Scottish universities in 2016 came from the most deprived backgrounds, an increase of just 10 students in the last two years. In the same period, there was an increase of 100 from the country’s wealthiest areas.
As university places for Scottish students are capped as a result of the SNP and Labour’s successive policies of free tuition, it means that, inevitably, there will be a squeeze on places going to middle-class students if more poor children gain access. The irony of conservative angst at such a development is that in any other area of life they would welcome the competition.
Conservatives, though, have never really believed in free competition. The market, the more unregulated the better, will set its own price and find its own standard. Yet the market in finance, in jobs, in housing and in education has never really been free and has always been skewed to favour those with the resources to manipulate it.
For instance, in the market of political representation, you might think that we live in a democracy where a poor man’s vote is equal in value to the ballot of a rich man. But when very rich men, through the companies they manage, can gain one-to-one access to the prime minister over dinner at a Conservative party conference for £100,000, then you would have to conclude that the market of political representation has been tilted a little in their favour.
So it is with higher education in Scotland. There are vast, sprawling neighbourhoods in Scotland’s major cities where children, no matter how bright they may be, will rarely have the opportunity to make the most of their academic abilities by attending our top universities.
Within a few miles of these places there are more arboreal districts where children enjoy an eye-watering assortment of advantages in the race for university places. These range from hours of expensive private home tuition to flat financial inducements for every higher A pass gained.
Meanwhile, Mum and Dad’s professional network can ensure that work placements and internships at legal and accountancy firms or a stint doing financially assisted charity work abroad will provide the necessary finishing touches to an application for the country’s most sought-after courses in medicine, law and commerce.
These privileges are more deeply embedded in those pupils whose parents can afford to educate them at Scotland’s private schools, most of which, bizarrely, are allowed to call themselves charities for the sole purpose of reducing their tax liabilities.
Thus, our universities are diminished by choosing from a very narrow gene pool. Their lecture theatres are not filled with the brightest and the best, just the brightest and the best of a narrow social stratum. They got there not by overcoming difficult hurdles or by displaying unusual attributes or by deploying creativity of thought but by conforming to a predetermined and narrow formula that is exclusively used to measure the prospect of academic success.
These unearned privileges become more embedded as our children progress in life. In the memberships of golf clubs and of professional associations, they are fed, watered and cocooned so that our most influential positions are handed around a tiny, cosseted few who then disseminate the lie that they are the cream of the crop. They are anything but.
Thousands more gifted children, for whom private tuition, good presentational skills and the confidence that come from wealth are a mirage, are prevented from adding depth to the nation’s pool of talent. The market has been artificially distorted to work against them and a state that boasts of its justice and fairness must create the means to disrupt these ancient patterns of privilege.
There are a number of ways to do this. The B that has been gained in the midst of social dysfunction and chaos and without the help of a private tutor deserves to be given extra weight. Selection interviews ought not to be the sole preserve of those who have been able to gain work experience at a perjink law firm. Universities must do more to implement mentoring schemes to acclimatise students from poorer neighbourhoods to an environment that they might at first find intimidating. Some of them do some of these but they are of a piecemeal and haphazard nature.
The Scottish government that seeks to be judged on this must bring our universities to heel, even if it means deploying a crude carrot-and-stick approach.
Stiff entrance qualifications in many of our most sought-after universities are designed not to secure the best but to shut out the poor. Why are five A’s regarded as the sole arbiter of a person’s ability eventually to be a good doctor or lawyer?
A university education is not for everyone but our poor children need role models and our disadvantaged communities need champions who have been seen to rise above their social challenges, meet them and defeat them. This will result not just in a fairer Scotland but in a much better one, freed from the ancient bonds of spurious entitlement that are currently choking us.