The Scottish Labour party famously abolished university tuition fees at the turn of the millennium, but a damning report last week revealed that scrapping the cost of higher education has done nothing to widen accessibility, or help get Scotland’s poorest children a university education.

Research from the Sutton Trust, an organisation seeking to improve social mobility through education, demonstrates that while the gap between rich and poor students entering UK universities continues to narrow, young people from Scotland’s most privileged areas are four times more likely to pursue higher education than those from the nation’s most deprived regions.

In England, students from more prosperous families are 2.4 more likely to go to university than their less privileged counterparts, while in Wales and Northern Ireland they are three times more likely to do so, the report notes.

Only eight percent of 18-year-olds from Scotland’s most deprived areas go on to pursue a university education, the report found, compared to 17 percent in England, 15 percent in Wales and 14 percent in Northern Ireland.

While the report did find that Scots are more likely to pursue some form of higher education than their neighbours south of the border, they are on the other hand, much less likely to go straight into university, and the majority tend to do so with such “articulation” that they often have to repeat at least one academic year.

In a 103-page study that comprehensively examined admissions data from both Scottish and British universities, the Sutton Trust found no evidence that the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) decision to abolish university tuition fees had improved application, acceptance or entry rates for the poorest children, even when compared to the nations that charge students a hefty price for tuition.

“This damning report confirms that Scotland still has some way to go when it comes to offering the same opportunities from students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Scottish Conservative Shadow Education Secretary, Liz Smith.

The news comes after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) that her priority government would work hard to improve accessibility within the higher education sector, as she pledged that closing the attainment gap between schools was “the mission, not just of this government or even this parliament, but of the country as a whole”.

There are widespread concerns between education professionals who claim that the cap on university places in Scotland, implemented as part of the free tuition policy, could in fact be hindering fair access to education.

“What is clear from the analysis is that England’s policy of uncapped places has made it easier to get into university and this has helped access,” said a spokesman for Universities Scotland.

“Scotland’s strict cap on places has made it much harder for Scottish students to get into Scottish universities.”

As a result of this, the Scottish university system has been unable to keep pace with growing demand for places, resulting in increased competitiveness from young people in the region, which has led to those from less privileged backgrounds essentially being ‘squeezed out’.

Chairman of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, Sir Peter Lampl, said: “Scotland faces a shocking access gap, and it is vital that the government appoints a strong independent commissioner without delay.”

Image via Flickr.

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