Strathclyde/Glasgow - Strathclyde University Rottenrow Garden

Analysis: Lowering entry requirements may not solve university attainment gap

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The International Study Group at the University of Strathclyde, 2014
Strathclyde/Glasgow – Strathclyde University Rottenrow Garden

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds should only be required to meet universities minimum entry requirements, a commission has said.

The Commission on Widening Access said students from poorer backgrounds should be admitted on the basis of lower entry requirements than their “wealthier” counterparts, in a bid to increase the number of working class students at university.

In 2013/14, 1355 school-leavers from the poorest 20% of households attained university places, compared with 5520 from the richest 20% of households.

In theory, the scheme is largely positive, and has been welcomed by a number of politicians and campaigners.

The chair of the commission, Dame Ruth Silver, said: “Advantage is just as entrenched in Scotland as disadvantage and this is about a rebalancing of fairness so that lots of people get into university from all walks of life.”

Yet, would the creation of a two-tier university system be beneficial to the individuals it is aimed at assisting?

It is more likely than not disadvantaged students will be taking out a student loan. If they do this every year across their four-year degree programme, this totals around £19,000 in student debt.

For poorer students, the figure can be up to £24,000.

Naturally, this figure would be covering the cost of accommodation (should they require it), food, travel, and education expenses for books and so on.

Though not representative of all universities, some do display estimated living costs on their websites. For instance, University of Edinburgh estimates between £7500 – £10,000 a year for an undergraduate.

Strathclyde University estimates living costs of £10,600-£12,700 for a 50-week period.

University of Stirling estimates its cost of living to be around £5000-£6000. Therefore, the average cost is approximately £8860.

Dame Ruth Silver. Photo: PolicyConnect.

This, if we take a £19,000, leaves students with just under £10,000 left over – around £211 each month over four years.


The expectation is a disadvantaged student would acquire a better job than if they had not gone to university so as to pay the student loan back.

Nevertheless, this does not account for the possible difficulties they may come across during their time at university.

Albeit many institutions use the upper-level of entry requirements so as to encourage competition amongst the best students, it is also expected for those universities to have a higher workload.

For students coming from disadvantaged  backgrounds, perhaps with lower grades, this may have a negative affect on their ability to achieve a degree classification so as to get a better job after graduation.

Would there be effective support methods for such students? And, if so, what might the potential costs be?

We find, then, that a reduction in entry requirements for students from disadvantaged backgrounds may actually have a negative affect on their performance at university.

Finally, as was expressed by Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith: “Some students will be required to meet minimum entry requirements to guarantee a place, but other students will be required to meet a higher bar of entry.

“This is bound to lead to difficulties for universities and it will certainly put added pressure on higher education funding since more places will have to be made available if no student is to be squeezed out.”

For any true Conservative, the tradition of university institutions being a place of scholarly research and high intellect is one they would wish to – if you pardon the phrase – conserve.

Yet, in today’s culture that idea is under pressure, with greater social mobility and aspiration making the push for more disadvantaged students to be admitted to higher education impediment.

In order to have a well-educated and robust economy, having as many young people with a degree as possible in the workforce should be a top priority for any government.

It could mean the time left for free tuition for Scottish and EU students in Scotland could be shortened, due to a growing number of students applying for a student loan.

Ultimately, assisting in increasing the number of students from poorer backgrounds attending university is a positive thing; it remains to be seen, though, whether these recommendations will have a long-term benefit for those students.

Applications for university in Scotland have been competitive for many years, and this measure would simply add further competition, which may not benefit anyone, particularly those students from middle class households who sit between the rich and poor, and may be squeezed out.

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