Scotland is doing a comparatively good job of sending poorer students to university, according to new analysis.
Within the UK only Northern Ireland, London and the West Midlands perform better at minimising the impact that poverty has on a pupil’s chance of accessing higher education, according to data analyst Tom Forth.
He broke the UK up into 11 geographical areas and used data from Ucas (Universities and Colleges Admission Service), the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the End Child Poverty campaign group to rank each on the strength of the link between wealth and a university education.
Mr Forth, founder of Leeds-based company Imactivate, finds that the chances of pupils from Scotland’s more deprived areas going to university have more than doubled in the past 10 years.
He concludes that “current criticism of [Scotland’s] higher education system is unfounded”.
The Scottish Conservatives recently used figures from Ucas to claim that, despite the Scottish government’s flagship policy of free university tuition, Scotland was “significantly behind” England, Wales and Northern Ireland in getting the poorest pupils into university.
Mr Forth highlights Ucas data showing that the proportion of 18-year-olds from Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas getting into university has risen to 15 per cent in 2014 from 7.2 per cent in 2004. But that still leaves Scotland behind Northern Ireland (25.7 per cent), England (20.7 per cent) and Wales (18.2 per cent).
“Scotland’s inequality of access does seem to be the highest of any UK nation, but over the past decade it has come down the most,” writes Mr Forth. “This looks like success, not failure, to me.”
The accessibility of Scottish higher education has already been in the headlines this week after a new report showed students were receiving half the total sum of bursaries and grants that they got five years ago.
Some 52,135 students were awarded £63.6 million in 2014-15, an average of £1,220 per person, according to figures from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS). That compares with £127 million paid out to 68,960 students in 2010-11, an average of £1,840.
Opposition politicians criticised the Scottish government for the drop, with ministers accused of landing poorer students with more debt than ever before.
A government spokeswoman said a new student support package introduced in 2013-14 had been put together with support from the National Union of Students Scotland.
She added: “Latest Student Loans Company figures published in June 2015 also show that average student loan debt in Scotland is the lowest in the UK, with Scots-domiciled students not having to pay fees of up to £27,000 charged for tuition elsewhere in the UK.”