Widening access to a university education in Scotland

Image caption More than 45,500 Scots applied for university before this year's January deadlines, according to the latest statistics

The latest official figures show just how big a challenge it is to get more young people from disadvantaged areas to university.

The numbers are up - but progress is slow. At some universities, the figures even appear to be going the wrong way.

Politicians of all colours try to find answers. A Scottish government commission on widening access is due to report soon.

Nobody pretends either the problem or the possible solutions are straightforward.

Looking at universities in isolation, of course, misses the point.

While universities are expected to do their bit to help widen access, primary and secondary schools and even pre-school education have a part to play too.

At the end of the day, a child does not chose their parents - a good measure of the success of any education system is how it provides opportunities for children who might not otherwise have got them.

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Image caption Some universities work with small children in disadvantaged areas in an effort to spot potential

For example some children - from all social backgrounds - grow up surrounded by books in homes where books and literature are treasured and simply absorb a love of reading which good teachers help and enhance. Others, of course, do not so teachers have more work to do promoting literacy.

Universities schemes to help widen access are wide-ranging. Some have projects which work with small children in disadvantaged areas - spotting potential, encouraging parents and children to see the prospect of eventually going to university as a natural option.

Other schemes include work to help students with their Highers or Advanced Highers.

Glasgow University runs special summer schools for youngsters from disadvantaged areas who are considering university. A student who goes to one of these may still get accepted even if they do not quite get the exam results they had hoped for.

But it's worth remembering that the vast majority of students from disadvantaged areas who do go, secure their place without any particular help - they simply get in because they got the exam results they needed and impressed the university with their personal qualities. The most they may have got was support, encouragement and aspiration.

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Image caption Glasgow University runs summer schools for children from disadvantaged backgrounds

Figures show that more students from disadvantaged areas are going to university but progress has been slow.

Direct comparisons with England and other parts of the UK can be hard for several reasons - not least the way deprivation is measured. And note the use of the phrase "disadvantaged area" - a young person may grow up in a disadvantaged area but not have been personally disadvantaged.

It is widely accepted that encouraging more young people from disadvantaged areas to go to university is about far, far more than encouraging teenagers studying for their Highers to fill in an application form. Universities argue, with perfect justification, that they can only offer places to youngsters if they actually apply.

The heat of political debate means that the issue of free university tuition is sometimes thrown into the argument. Nobody would seriously argue that free tuition in itself helps to widen access - the most anyone in education or mainstream politics is likely to argue is that fees would do nothing to encourage someone to go.

But long before students consider their Highers or Advanced Highers, there can be numerous challenges - for children, teachers and parents.

  • Some bright children at schools where relatively few students are academic high fliers may succumb to peer pressure
  • Some parents, regardless of good intent, may simply not be able to provide their children with the kind of practical help outside school which can help them get a better exam grade - for instance, actually helping them with homework or being able to pay for extra tuition in a difficult subject.
  • Simple misconceptions about higher education. Some families may imagine a university "is not for the likes of us" or have misunderstandings about the cost. Even when this is not the case, it might be hard for some teenagers to actually see themselves as university students if they do not have a role model who is a graduate. Or they may lack confidence in their own academic ability.
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Image caption Most students from disadvantaged areas who win places at university do so without any particular help

The solutions are, of course, complex. They involve everything from work to raise attainment in schools to personal mentoring.

While, of course, the best mentoring is personal it might be worth asking whether public figures can sometimes provide good role models to help ambitious young people.

Those with little sympathy for popular culture may mock, but it might even be worth reflecting on how worthwhile radio and television may sometimes shape a young person's interests or skills, even subliminally.

In a week when many were sharing their memories of Sir Terry Wogan, how many people were thinking back to how they felt they "knew" a highly intelligent person with a great love of words and wordplay who always wore that intelligence so lightly and jovially in public? The same could be said of all manner of remarkable or successful people in all walks of life.

It's an interesting thought. But certainly many things big and small - not all of them obvious - can help nurture aspiration and ambition in a child.

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