The student numbers "cap" is deeply flawedby Liz Smith / January 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Let’s be clear about one thing. It is good news that more Scottish domiciled students are at university than ever before. Assuming a university degree enriches the mind, improves career prospects and helps develop new skills, then there must be welcome economic and social benefit.
But there is a problem. An increasing number of Scottish domiciled students wanting places at Scottish institutions will not be offered a place. This is because of the Scottish National Party’s insistence that the number of places provided to them be “capped.”
As Audit Scotland noted in its most recent report into higher education, demand for places from domiciled Scots has risen by 23 per cent in the last six years, while the availability of places has risen by only 9 per cent. Recent statistics from UCAS show that the number of these applicants missing out on a place at one of the country’s universities has more than doubled in the last decade. In 2007, the number who failed to win a place was 8,280. Now, that figure stands at 16,645. In addition to this, the proportion of Scottish domiciled applicants who are offered a place is falling—while the proportion of fee-paying RUK students is increasing.
You don’t need a degree in rocket science to work out that it is getting much tougher for university applicants from this group. Some very well-qualified school leavers are losing out and turning their attention to places south of the border.
One could argue that increased competition for entry is a good thing since this should raise standards and mean that only the brightest and best get offered a place. This might be true if there was a level playing field, but there is not. Far from it.
For a start, the SNP has persisted with its highly discriminatory funding policy which means that Scottish domiciled students and (for the time being) EU students pay no fees, while students from the rest of the UK and international students studying exactly the same course do pay fees. This commitment to “free” higher education for some has only been affordable by limiting, or “capping,” the number of places that can be offered to domiciled Scots.
The SNP is very fond of using the mantra that entrance to university should be “based on the ability to learn not on the ability to pay.” While this never struck a chord for RUK and international students who had to pay fees, it is now also wearing very thin for Scots who have proven their ability to learn but who cannot get a place.
On top of this is the SNP’s insistence that all Scottish universities accept 20 per cent of their intake from the 20 per cent most deprived communities by the year 2030. I have not come across anyone in Scotland who disapproves of widening access—indeed the institutions themselves are already making good progress in this area (without directives from government incidentally). But this raw, quantitative target approach is almost certain to come unstuck.
Firstly, there is the automatic assumption that each member of this 20 per cent does, in fact, want to be at university rather than on other college or training courses. This is not necessarily the case just as it is not necessarily the case for better off students.
Secondly, unless the Scottish government helps universities to provide more places there is bound to be some displacement of students who are not in that 20 per cent category. In the view of Lucy Hunter Blackburn from Edinburgh University, those most likely to lose out would be those students whose family income is just above the lowest quintile—students, she says, “who come from families with less experience of higher education, but who do not meet the widening access criteria.” This is a point corroborated by Alastair Sim of Universities Scotland, who has said that the widening access agenda, laudable as it is in principle, has the potential to “shut off opportunities for pupils in the middle.”
Do not forget that this comes at a time when bursary support in Scotland is far weaker than it is in other parts of the UK, and when the SNP has cut the higher education budget by another 2.7 per cent in real terms. This led Universities Scotland to warn the Scottish government that its funding settlement is not sustainable in terms of safeguarding academic excellence and the competitiveness of Scottish universities.
If the SNP really does want university entrance to be based on the ability to learn then it will need to remove the discrimination from its higher education policies.