Educating ‘the Poor’ – Should Poorer Students have Lower Academic Standards to get to University?

Education used to be the pride of Scotland’s culture and our great strength. Ever since the day that John Knox declared ‘where there is a church, there should be a school’, we have developed an education system that was once the envy of the world. Alas no more. There are enormous difficulties in both our primary and secondary schools and this week the Scottish government admitted there was a significant problem in our Universities, especially the ‘elite’ ones.

The Poor and the Elite

The trouble is that only 14% of students in Scotland’s universities are from the poorer 20% of Scottish households go to University. This figure falls to 8% for the universities of St Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. These are universities that consider themselves to be the elites. My daughter when she started at Edinburgh University was actually told that she was now part of the elite!

Redressing the Balance

The Scottish government to their credit have recognized the injustice of this and this week announced that they were seeking to do something about it. Incidentally I am not one of those who would decry everything the Scottish government does. I think they mean well and are genuinely concerned about this situation. So what are they proposing?  Scottish Universities are to lower their entry requirements for students from poorer backgrounds in the aim to make higher education less middle class.   In one sense this seems a sensible and fair measure. Middle class pupils tend to go to better schools, their parents can often afford private tutors and therefore the system is skewed in their favour. Why not redress the balance?

Because doing it in this way is patronizing and tokenistic. I am a farm workers son. I was able to go to the University of Edinburgh in 1979 because I got a maintenance grant, my fees paid and I got the grades required. I would have been ashamed to have obtained a place (at the expense of a wealthier person who had higher grades) just because of my class.   The trouble is that the Scottish government (and the Universities) are proposing something that is superficial and does not deal with the root cause of the problem.   Let me offer an alternative view.

Education for All

Firstly the government/universities should seek not to fill quotas so that it looks good on their social justice resume.   Instead they should seek to provide a better education for ALL at the school level. That is where the major problem lies.   School should not be about social engineering but it should be about education and academic excellence. The government should not presuppose that children from Bearsden are more academically brilliant than children from Govan. I’m fed up with hearing government ministers boast about ‘positive outcomes’ meaning that they have managed to get children into jobs/further training or further education.   I just want children in Scotland to have an opportunity to get a decent education – irrespective of their class and background.

 Fund Scottish Students Not EU

Educating Hans but not Hamish or Henrietta

Secondly the government needs to stop its obsession with the EU, which has come at the expense of poorer Scottish students. I wrote under freedom of information to try and get the information about how much it was costing the Scottish taxpayer to pay for the EU Middle Classes to come here and study under ‘free tuition’. It was like getting blood out of a stone.   Some £27 million of public money was spent on EU students coming to Scotland (the number had risen from 6,000 to 14,000). Meanwhile there was a strict cap placed on the number of Scottish students. When we leave the EU there will be a lot less EU students coming – especially if we don’t pay for them. When that happens, why does the government not use the money to encourage Scottish students from a poorer background to come to Uni?

Is Discrimination Good?

Thirdly this move will be inherently discriminatory. Imagine you a student from a lower middle class background (you don’t quite meet the social criteria for getting the exam advantage). You work really hard and manage to get the grades necessary to study medicine at Edinburgh Uni. But you are turned down because the Uni has to fill a quota set by the government, and someone who has lesser grades than you, gets in. I heard one lady on the BBC when faced with this question, somewhat unrealistically proclaim ‘well, they should realize it is for the greater good’! This from someone who already had their degree and their advantages from the system.   You don’t solve one injustice by creating another.

End Free Tuition for All?

Another question. I went on marches and demonstrations to protest against the removal of maintenance grants and the introduction of tuition fees.   In an ideal world all students should have their fees paid and most should get some kind of maintenance grant. But that is now no longer possible because of the greatly increased number of students and universities. Therefore I have begun to question whether free tuition is the right policy. Students from poorer backgrounds should get maintenance grants and should get their fees paid. But should everyone? In reality what is happening as a result of this policy is that it has turned into yet another subsidy for the middle classes and as a result the number of students from poorer backgrounds has actually declined. In my view nowadays someone from my background is far less likely to go to University to do a meaningful degree, than they were forty years ago. Like much of the rest of our education system, in this regard Higher education is regressing not progressing.

The Business Model of Education

I once heard a government education minister speak of education as an industry and a business. I find that really disturbing because it has become true. As someone directly involved in university education I see how the business model pervades (even to the extent of offering nicer private accommodation for those who can afford it) and how it is failing. Only two of Scotland’s’ Universities are financially viable – and they are able to cherry pick staff and students because their elitist image is self-perpetuating and their alumni tend to be the better off and so can afford to give larger legacies.   Universities are desperate to bring in as many international students as possible; not primarily because of the value of having a wider international community, but because they can get more money from them. They are more valuable customers.   They are not aiming to bring the poor and the disadvantaged from poorer countries – no, they are part of the international education as business market. It is the globalization of education and it is harming Scotland’s poor.   Can we not return to the idea that education in and or itself is a good? It is not a business. It is not just about careers and commercialism. Its about knowledge, wisdom, learning and diversity.

Quotas for the BBC and MSP’s?

One final thought. If the government and the elites who run the Universities are going to go down this patronizing route – why stop at the Universities?   Why can we not have quotas for the BBC? Or the Edinburgh Festival? Or the Olympics? Or even MSP’s?! After all if it is going to be mandated that 50% of MSPs should be female – why should it not be mandated that one third be working class?   The trouble with the quota/positive discrimination method is that it always ends up being patronizing because it always ends up being selective – and it is still the elites who do the selecting!   Why not just seek to create a level playing field for all? And that of course brings us full circle – that can’t be done without the opportunity of proper education for all. Offering students places at Uni because of their background does not fulfill that requirement – at best it is a sticking plaster designed to make those who administer it, feel better about themselves.




  1. Regarding tuition fees. Suppose someone from a poorer background (and qualifies for your free tuition) goes to university and becomes a doctor. Throughout his working life he will have a large income but no tuition fee debt. On the other hand, suppose someone from a middle class background goes to university and becomes a teacher. He will have a much lower income than the doctor but he is also required to repay his tuition fees. I fail to see any justice in that situation. Surely it is not the income of the students’ parents that is important but the income the student receives in his working life. It would be interesting to know what percentage of university students in England have their tuition fees paid by their parents. We are always hearing about the enormous levels of debt which English students are being burdened with. Either the parents are paying the tuition fees or the stories are not telling us the real situation.
    But there is little point in allowing somebody to go to university if, once they get there, they are unable to cope with the level of academic work required. Not unless you have lower standards for students from certain backgrounds. And then you would have doctors with full qualifications and doctors with lesser qualifications. Who’d want that? So what are the drop-out rates for university students from different backgrounds? If students from certain backgrounds have a higher drop-out rate then there’s little point in getting more of them into university unless something can be done to reduce the drop-out rate.
    But I like the idea of class quotas for the BBC and MSPs. Somehow I can’t see either the BBC or our current MSPs being terribly keen on the idea of quotas that affect them!

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