The Principal of Glasgow University, Anton Muscatelli, has recently joined a new Commission For Widening Access which aims to reduce inequality in admissions to Scottish universities. The commission was announced in November last year and hopes to guarantee that twenty per cent of Scottish university entrants are from the most disadvantaged twenty per cent of society. It is headed by Dame Ruth Silver, an influential and progressive member of parliamentary select committees on education. There are members from universities across the country as well as two from NUS Scotland.
Scotland remains the only country in the UK to provide free tuition to its home students. However, despite the undeniable benefits this has, it appears it is not the solution to Scotland’s problem. Since the abolition of tuition fees in 2001 there has been no dramatic change in matriculation rates from the most disadvantaged proportions of society. This suggests that the barrier to university attendance is not entirely financial. Furthermore, free tuition fees may actually disadvantage Scottish students since it may encourage universities to prioritise international or rest of UK students as their fees are much higher.
In order to help tackle this problem, Glasgow University runs Top-Up schemes and Summer School programmes aimed at school pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Participation in these schemes can be part of a conditional offer or a way to gain lower entry requirements, as well as being a brilliant way to experience life at university. Muscatelli says he hopes that his participation in the commission will compliment these existing systems, and that Glasgow is committed to ensuring social and economic background do not overshadow the academic potential of applicants.
The positive impact of these programmes suggests the barrier may be more social than financial. University is frequently presented as a place you go to meet like-minded people but this can seem difficult if you expect to feel out of place. For this reason programmes like summer schools are vital in helping pupils to picture themselves at university. With the chance to attend lectures and seminars as well as receiving guidance on course choice and study skills, these courses are a brilliant way to understand what it is like to attend university, particularly for people with no previous encounters with it.
Generally, though, Top-Up and Summer School are used by placeholders at Glasgow Uni: a group of students who are already open to the idea of higher education. The programmes are beneficial in providing students with a sense of what they could achieve, but with earlier promotion more students may be given an idea of their options. Perhaps if the schemes were introduced as part of the school curriculum, more students could be encouraged to apply. Inclusion in the curriculum may also relieve financial pressures, as the current programmes may prevent students from working during the summer before university.
These programmes should also aim to tackle snobbery. In some areas students applying to particularly prestigious universities – or even university at all – are seen to be getting ahead of themselves. This is reinforced by stereotypes such as the “Glasgow Uni accent” which suggest only a certain type of privileged student is welcome at Glasgow. Snobbery at Glasgow Uni also seems to degrade the other institutions in the city. Applying to places like Glasgow Caledonian University is therefore seen as shameful.
Perhaps an important part of the problem is middle class stereotyping. The stereotype that disadvantaged pupils can’t enter university is complemented by the stereotype that more advantaged pupils inevitably will, regardless of whether this is suitable for them. Perhaps if pupils right across the school system were encouraged to consider university among other options, there would be fewer problems For middle class students, university is seen as an integral part of growing up: the place where you find yourself and your closest friends. This suggests that university is the only place to make these discoveries. Some school-leavers however might find it more suitable to go straight into the workplace, or to do an internship or apprenticeship. Suggesting university is only for middle class students not only locks out other groups but traps middle class students into attending.
The Widening Access Commission had its first meeting this April so we will hopefully begin to feel the effects of its work soon. Glasgow has been running summer school programmes for twenty-five years with little major improvement; perhaps a body like this will finally force more positive change.