Gina Davidson: Education must be available to all

THERE is perhaps a little envy at the root. Four years of university education escaped me. I didn't have the grades.

Thursday, 17th March 2016, 7:36 am
Updated Thursday, 17th March 2016, 9:08 am
File picture: Ian Rutherford

So my further education was two years at Napier Polytechnic (though my diploma says University) and then it was out into the big, bad world armed with notebook and a pocketful of 10ps for the phonebox.

But journalism was – and still is really – a vocational subject. You learn the skills you need to perform your trade. Two years of law, shorthand, the intricacies of local government and learning the difference between writing a news story and crafting a feature is probably enough.

Enough especially to know when you’re being sold a pup. Like the idea that you can engineer university entrances for kids from poorer areas without, at the same time, increasing the overall number of places available. Or indeed having systems in place to ensure the “deprived kids” are supported when at university so they don’t drop out after a year or so because they basically just can’t afford to be there.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The idea that young people from poor backgrounds should be able to get into university although they have lower grades than those who’ve benefitted from private schooling or middle-class pushiness, as has been suggested this week by the Commission on Widening Access, is being portrayed as controversial.

But it’s absolutely correct if we want an education system which is properly accessible to all. Here’s the envy – I’d have probably got into Edinburgh to study English under such a scheme.

It’s much like the idea behind quotas for women getting onto business boards or election candidate slates; positive discrimination has to happen for real change to occur. Tinkering at the edges and crossing fingers doesn’t work.

Intelligent kids who could benefit hugely from a university education should not be held back because they attend a school whose ambitions for them are poor because they live in a deprived area and so don’t even push them to be presented for exams. They shouldn’t be held back because their parents never saw the point of education themselves while at school. Nor should they be prevented from attending university because they grow up in places where the future is never discussed, never mind prospects.

But, and it’s a huge but, there’s no way of widening that access without increasing the overall student numbers universities are able to take. Can you imagine the outcry from middle Scotland if its children are squeezed out of university because poor kids with lower grades are getting in?

That then means more teaching staff, more resources. It means more support for poor kids - in terms of bursaries (which have been cut by 36 per cent since 2006), in travel expenses being paid, in subsidised student housing. Wouldn’t it be great if it meant the return of grants so that those who have no financial parental support don’t have to work three jobs at the same time as studying?

Most controversially it probably means that to actually widen access to education, the idea that Scottish students don’t pay tuition fees will have to, finally, be scrapped.

That will be a hard pill to swallow for the SNP which has staked its educational policies firmly on the idea that Scotland will continue to offer free university education for all. Former First Minister Alex Salmond went so far as having the pledge carved in rock.

But it’s not really for all if poor kids aren’t getting in.

Scotland is the worst performing country in the UK when it comes to children from the higher end of deprivation scales getting into university - and it’s been shown that the free tuition policy is in no small way to blame.

Of course early intervention is important. Teachers who can spot talent and nurture it no matter the kids’ background is vital. But the lack of money going into university coffers to enable them to expand their offer, to support poor students, to offer more substantial bursaries is a major


Universities are businesses. They need cash to survive, to compete. Currently the more foreign students they can attract with their cheque books the better. Poor kids don’t have a look in. It’s time they got the support into further education they need, even if means much gritting of teeth and admitting that government policies are wrong.

It’s tragic that firefighter’s death was ‘avoidable’

WHO could fail to feel deep sorrow for Linda Williamson, mother of firefighter Ewan, when it was revealed that his death was not only tragic but “avoidable and unacceptable”?

The firefighters who attended the fire at the Balmoral Bar seven years ago, were given “limited or incomplete briefings” about breathing apparatus, with crews “committed into a high-risk environment, ill-equipped and without full appreciation of the hazards” according to a new report.

Although the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has already been fined £54,000 because of breaches of health and safety in regard to Ewan’s death – the latest findings are an added weight for Linda who feels abandoned by the service to which her son gave his life.

There are 19 recommendations for improvements for the fire service in the report. Linda’s only solace is that Ewan’s death means that all firefighters are now much safer.

Capital’s rising up style ratings

IF there’s one thing that never goes out of style it’s… fashion. Audiences at this month’s Edinburgh Fashion Week were up 15 per cent on last year as people forgot the daily grind to lose themselves among the latest clothing fantasies of designers. Of course the discount promotions at many stores would have helped too.

Here’s hoping it will soon be Edinburgh that people will think of as Scotland’s city of style rather than the blinging upstart through in the west.

The real deal

GREAT news that detailed talks of a £1bn city deal for Edinburgh and the south-east of Scotland were confirmed in the Chancellor’s Budget statement yesterday. The leaders of the councils involved deserve credit for working together to get this investment which could attract £3.2bn of private money – all of which will provide a major boost to the economy.