CREID Briefing paper 3 - Think Tank 2: Widening Access to Higher Education - Scotland in UK Comparative Context
One of the fundamental principles underpinning the Scottish education system is the meritocratic idea that, irrespective of social background, all children should have an equal opportunity to develop their academic potential. Scottish Government representatives are emphatic that ‘education in Scotland should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay’. However, official statistics show that the majority of young people who go to university in Scotland are from middle class backgrounds, and that, in the most selective older universities, about 80% of students are from professional and managerial backgrounds. This mirrors the situation in the rest of the UK and the developed world, although European countries differ with regard to their degree of success in widening access. Unless one subscribes to the view that academic ability is concentrated in the middle classes, major questions arise as to how a system based on meritocratic principles produces highly unequal outcomes. In line with the European Union’s goal of severing the association between social background and higher education participation, and irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, Scotland needs to consider what can be done to erode these inequalities.
Our think tank on widening access to higher education, which is part of the ESRC-funded Future of the UK and Scotland programme, raises a series of questions with regard to the creation of inequality in higher education in Scotland, the rest of the UK and other jurisdictions. In this briefing, we first outline the policy developments which have characterised efforts to combat inequality in higher education, some of which are specific to Scotland and some of which are UK-wide. We also review the debates on which groups should be included in widening access initiatives in Scotland, the UK and Europe. Subsequently, we provide an overview of the social inequalities which are reflected in the outcomes of the initial and higher education systems, placing Scotland in comparative perspective. Finally, we explore the potential impact of major policy divergences between the Scottish and English HE systems, including the wide-reaching effect on widening access of different student funding regimes north and south of the Border.