Universities urged to reduce entry grades for disadvantaged students

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland education correspondent

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Universities are being urged to significantly reduce the grades youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds need for a place.

A report for the Scottish Funding Council recommends cutting the exam results which are needed for a place on some of the most prestigious courses.

The Scottish government expects all universities to increase the proportion of students from disadvantaged areas.

The report argues exams do not always give the best indication of potential.

It was produced by academics at Durham University for the SFC.

It suggests that the entry requirements for some of the top courses at older universities could be cut to 5 B grades at Higher level.

As a general rule, the older universities and most prestigious courses require better exam grades than those institutions which were awarded university status in the 1990s.

New universities, such as Glasgow Caledonian and the University of the West of Scotland, also tend to attract a greater proportion of students from working class or disadvantaged backgrounds than the older institutions.

Range of actions

However, all universities have devised schemes to try to widen the pool of applicants including mentoring schemes, outreach programmes and summer schools - some more successfully than others.

Sometimes the normal entry requirements have been lowered.

A spokesman for Universities Scotland said: "We have been closely following this research and we support one of its main findings which is that exam grades don't always give us a true measure of a person's potential. Universities are excited to set out a range of actions in just a few weeks' time that address many of the findings in this research.

"We welcome the emphasis the research has given to student retention as this is a really important part of the picture. We want our retention rates to keep improving and will look closely at the retention thresholds used in the report.

"Some universities are already adjusting grades to help widen access. They've found this works well, and the students can thrive, where decisions are made on an individual basis and where additional support is in place to help students adjust and succeed."

Out of reach

The call for lower entry grades reflects a long-standing concern.

It is claimed that students from schools in middle class areas may be more likely to achieve top grades - in some cases possibly because of parental help or private tuition.

This could make some courses or institutions seem out of reach for disadvantaged youngsters or for those who go to schools where few students get exceptional exam results.

One issue for universities is the need to distinguish between the so-called minimum entry requirement - designed to demonstrate that an applicant is capable of doing the course - and the competitive entry requirement which may be much higher for the most prestigious courses and institutions.

image copyrightKay Williams/Geograph
image captionThe University of Edinburgh is among the older institutions which are being urged to rethink their entry policy

Universities would want to ensure that the applicants given places would still have a good prospect of successfully completing a course.

In general, universities often pay less attention to exam grades in isolation now before they offer a place - they may interview applicants or look at what else they have achieved.

Already there are examples of the competitive entry requirement being lowered for some youngsters.

The report also recommends a more subtle and complex measure of disadvantage than the area a young person comes from.

It has long been noted that a youngster may come from a deprived area but may not be from a deprived background personally.

Measures which might also be used could include whether they received free school meals or had been in care.

Widening access to university is not a simple issue.

A recent report from the Scottish Funding Council showed that in 2015-16, 14% of Scottish domiciled full-time first degree entrants to university were from the 20% most deprived areas.

This was a marginal increase from 13.9% the previous year while the numbers for some universities actually went down.

'No easy solutions'

The government wants a fifth of students to come from the 20% most deprived areas by 2030.

It appointed Professor Sir Peter Scott as the Commissioner for Fair Access to help drive progress.

It is widely accepted that helping more youngsters from disadvantaged areas get to university is a complex problem with no single easy solutions.

Issues include:

  • Raising attainment in schools
  • Identifying youngsters with the potential to go to university at an early stage and encouraging them
  • Mentoring youngsters who may have misconceptions about university because none of their friends or relatives have been in higher education
  • Student funding
  • The impression youngsters may have of individual universities and courses
  • Poverty and disadvantage itself

Universities have also highlighted the need to increase the overall number of places over time to ensure that helping more disadvantaged youngsters does not make it harder for others to get admitted.

A Scottish government spokesman said: "This research provides a welcome addition to the Scottish evidence base to support our drive for equal access to higher education.

"It reaffirms the need for more transparency and consistency in the use of contextual admissions, as highlighted by the Commissioner for Fair Access in his June discussion paper on admissions.

"It also provides, for the first time, evidence of how access thresholds could be applied in practice and their potential to double the number of applicants from our most deprived areas who would meet the entrance requirements at our most selective institutions."

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