Edinburgh, Fife & East Scotland

St Andrews University makes 'deprived' students pledge

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Media captionSt Andrews University said it wanted the brightest students, regardless of background

Scotland's oldest university has called for more effort to boost the attainment levels of aspiring students from poorer backgrounds.

The University of St Andrews has been criticised for admitting just 14 students from Scotland's 20 most deprived areas last year.

Leaders at the Fife university said lowering entry grades would mean "admitting students to fail".

It has pledged to increase its intake from deprived areas to 20 students.

The university, where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge both studied, has also said it will increase bursary support for Scottish students by £400,000.

Last year, a total of 482 Scottish students were admitted to St Andrews, which has Scotland's toughest entry requirements.

It said few young people from poorer backgrounds were achieving basic university entry grades.

Stephen Magee, vice-principal with responsibility for admissions at St Andrews, said: "We have a choice - we can continue to beat up our leading universities for failing to admit more kids from our most deprived areas, or we can start, without shame or blame, to ask if perhaps there is something going wrong throughout the whole equation."

Mr Magee said there was no question of a lack of will on the university's part to support bursaries and scholarships, adding: "We want Scotland's brightest here, regardless of background."

He said there must be a concerted effort in areas like health, housing and a "culture of attainment" at all levels of Scottish education.

Deprived areas

Mr Magee added: "We know that we could play the political game and change these figures overnight by lowering our entry grades, but experience tells us that we would simply be admitting these kids to fail, and that would be utterly dishonest.

"If as a nation, however, we continue to lay responsibility for widening access solely at the door of universities, the challenge will never be properly met."

The university highlighted data which was released after The Guardian made a freedom of information request to the Scottish government.

It revealed that of the 8,872 Scottish fifth year pupils from the country's most deprived areas in 2011, only 220 achieved three A Higher passes or better.

Of these 220, 55 included St Andrews as a choice on their Ucas applications. St Andrews made offers to 34 of these students, 14 of whom accepted.

Education Secretary Mike Russell told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme this needed to be addressed, but that universities could help in that process.

'More ambitious'

However, Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, said St Andrews' target to increase students from deprived backgrounds was "minuscule".

He said: "It's welcome that St Andrews are accepting that they can do more, at least in part, by setting targets that will see some limited progress on widening access if met.

"However, while accepting the principle is welcome, their plans will see only an additional six students per year enter St Andrews University in practice. That's minuscule by any standard."

He added: "With hundreds of millions of pounds of additional public money going into universities in Scotland over the coming years, St Andrews, and others, need to aim much higher than this.

"Rather than telling us what they can't do, they should be more ambitious in what they can.

"We want to see universities setting ambitious local plans for widening access across Scotland and we want to see the Scottish Parliament legislate at the national level to ensure every institution prioritises widening access and makes progress in this area."

The education secretary said schemes to widen access were already working.

Mr Russell said Glasgow University had "a very intensive programme" which takes young people who "might not just make it and it helps them to make it".

He added: "Indeed, they've studied these students as they go through university and they've discovered they actually do better than their counterparts who come from wealthier areas.

"So we can do more. We can do more in schools, we can do more in society.

"Yes, St Andrews is right to draw attention to that, but universities also have to do more."

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