Why do straight-A students miss out on university places?

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Image caption Some students feel aggrieved at not being accepted on the course of their choice

When a candidate with excellent exam results fails to get the place at university they had hoped for, the sense of disappointment - even grievance or anger - can be real.

Newspapers have revealed correspondence to the government from parents who were angry their youngsters did not get in to the university of their choice.

So why might an impressive candidate with straight As fail to get a place?

The answers are complicated. But, first of all, universities believe what they regard as a simple urban myth needs debunked.

No Scottish student is ever denied a university place simply in order to give a place to a fee-paying student from overseas.

It may sometimes feel like that to a disappointed applicant and their parents but universities and admissions officers are adamant this simply does not happen."

Free tuition

But these experiences highlight the downsides to two important Scottish government policies - free tuition and trying to make it easier for people from disadvantaged areas to get in.

These policies enjoy broad support within academia in Scotland but, as with any such scheme, there are pros and cons.

Undergraduate students at Scottish universities can be divided into three categories:

  • Scots and citizens of EU countries outside the United Kingdom. They are entitled to free places paid for by the Scottish Funding Council. The overwhelming majority of these places go to Scots but under EU law these places also have to be available to applicants from other EU countries
  • Students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who are charged tuition fees of about £9,000 a year
  • Students from outside the UK and Europe who are charged uncapped tuition fees

The number of "free" places is decided by the Scottish government on an annual basis. The overall number of university places available to Scots is around a record high.

Image caption Universities have changed they way they look at applications

These places cannot be given to people from the rest of the UK or overseas. If a place cannot be filled by a Scot or EU citizen, it goes unfilled.

The 'price' of free tuition

However, some will ask why universities are turning down Scots applicants when they have room to allow people from overseas in. They might wonder why universities cannot offer "spare" places to Scots.

This highlights the "price" of free tuition.

Free tuition means a cap has to be placed on the number of free places - albeit one which is set at a relatively high level. Without some sort of cap, the policy would simply be unaffordable.

However, universities can decide for themselves just how many fee-paying students from other parts of the UK and countries outside Europe to take in.

The uncapped fees paid by students from outside Europe are an important source of income to universities but these students do not keep Scots out.

There is an argument to be made - albeit one which few in Scottish education would advance - that tuition fees would solve this problem.

If Scottish universities charged tuition fees, the cap on the number of places would end.

However, the Scottish government and many within universities see free tuition as a right and a point of principle.

What are the other reasons?

So what other reasons might explain why some young people with excellent grades have been turned down?

The Scottish government's efforts to help more people from disadvantaged areas get to university may also be a factor.

By 2030, a fifth of all students at all Scottish universities will need to come from the most disadvantaged areas. Universities have to meet interim targets along the way.

This has prompted universities to pay less attention to exam results in isolation when they decide whether to offer a candidate a place.

They have been moving towards a system of so-called "contextualised admissions".

This means they now pay more attention to a candidate's experience, potential or personal qualities.

One argument in favour of this is that candidates from disadvantaged areas may find the top grades virtually impossible to achieve - while some young people from more advantaged backgrounds may benefit from parental help and additional private tuition.

Inevitably, this will lead to examples where an applicant with, say, 5 A Grades fails to get a place while someone with "poorer" exam results gets in.

Universities have argued that unless the total number of places available to Scots rises, meeting increasingly-demanding widening access targets could simply make it even more competitive for all others to get in.

In the longer term - depending on whatever long-term arrangements are reached between Britain and the EU - some would say all the free places paid for by the Scottish Funding Council should go to Scots while students from EU countries could be charged fees. This could ease the pressure without adding to costs.

Is there a way to ensure all deserving Scots get in?

  • Free tuition

A point of principle for many but in practice it involves a cap on student numbers otherwise the cost would spiral out of control.

However giving the "free" places currently given to EU students to Scots could make it easier to widen access without making it harder for others to get in.

  • Tuition fees

If Scottish students were charged fees, there would be no cap on the number of Scottish students.

It could also end the situation where some places are only open to students from other parts of the UK. But few within academia would support this option and most believe the pros of free tuition outweigh the cons.

  • Half way house?

Nobody in the mainstream of Scottish politics currently publicly advocates any of the following ideas but they might be considered as part of a policy debate.

One theoretical option might be to re-introduce tuition fees but devise a system which meant some students - say those from SIMD20 areas or whose family incomes fell below a certain level - had their fees paid for them.

Another theoretical option could be to allow students who missed out on a free place to get a place which might otherwise go to a UK student by paying tuition fees.

The problem is that it could be bureaucratic and lead to a situation where some students were seen as having "bought" their place rather than achieved it on merit.

Missing out on uni - or just the course?

The last question is whether some Scots with excellent exam results are really being denied a place at university rather than simply losing out on a place on their course of choice.

This depends on which courses the young person has actually applied for.

Some may only have sought places on prestigious courses where getting a place is highly competitive.

Some careers advisers would recommend that they should also apply for places on courses which are likely to be "easier" to get into as an insurance policy.

This might, for instance, mean applying for a place at one of the former polytechnics which became a university in the 1990s.

And finally, getting turned down for a place this year should not be the end of a young person's dreams.

If they apply again next year - possibly with some more qualifications from school or college, or perhaps with some new experience to highlight - they may be successful.

Although the number of young people at university is around a record high, a university place is still not someone's right or entitlement.

The question is over the means by which places are allocated. No method is perfect and, of course, what may seem to be "wrong" or "unfair" decisions may sometimes be taken, especially if there is a degree of subjectivity assessing individual candidates.

Exam results in isolation did provide a certain objectivity - but the argument is they also placed some courses beyond the reach of able youngsters who did not go to certain schools or benefit from additional help and support.