Helen Martin: Why SNP's revolutionary university plan is wrong

One political policy that must unify everyone in Scotland is increasing the opportunities open to those from deprived backgrounds.

Monday, 12th March 2018, 6:00 am
The exam results required for university admission should be the same for all (Picture: PA)

None of us can keep up with the super-rich, but most of us don’t want to see the gulf growing between the “middle class” and poor. And key to that is one of the Scottish Government’s priority goals, to improve education.

Schools are one thing, but when it comes to universities “equality” is much trickier to achieve.

Higher Education Minister Shirley-Anne Sommerville has several plans in mind, with the riskiest, most revolutionary and divisive being the idea of lowering the exam results required for admission for applicants from deprived areas, while others have to leap over a higher educational bar to get a place.

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Such policies when adopted in other parts of the world have increased the sense of anger and injustice for those who have lost out. Years ago, I was in South Africa around Cape Town, at the time one of the least racist parts of that country. Positive discrimination and unequal qualification was being introduced to universities. The result was a new social phrase describing teenage white boys as “male, pale and frail” – for they had become the ones with fewer opportunities.

Long before that, I worked in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Race relations took a major dip when the local council dropped the level of employment qualifications for the Asian community significantly below those demanded of white applicants for the same jobs. Racism is wrong, so measures to counter it have to be greater and braver. But it’s dangerous and foolish to ignore the potential impact on community relations.

The same resentment can only be expected when these tactics are employed here between the middle class and the deprived. A major problem is how kids from deprived areas are going to be able to afford studying for three to five years. The acceptance that their parents can’t support them into their 20s, let alone stump up for student accommodation, can limit their ambition and effort at school and any aspirations of going to university. Leaving school and finding a job or claiming benefits is for many the only realistic route.

If entrance qualifications are lower to begin with, will they have to work even harder than others to pass their finals? Or will pass standards be dropped too? And if so, how will that affect professional ability and the quality of services graduates eventually provide for the public, be that medicine, teaching, accountancy, chiropody or anything else?

So, should we increase opportunities for the deprived? Absolutely! But by different methods. The government could offer subsistence support and other allowances to students from poorer backgrounds. By putting the cost of attending uni within their grasp (as it used to be with grants in the old days) pupils can be encouraged to work harder at school knowing they have an equal shot at higher education, teachers in deprived areas will be inspired knowing they have graduates in the making, and entrance qualifications will be the same for all students – with no discrimination.

Yes, it will cost the public purse more. But it will level the playing field, keep standards high, create fair competition for places, avoid battering one part of the community to the advantage of another, and turn out the best qualified graduates we possibly can – from all backgrounds.

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