Does Scotland Have a Higher Education Access Problem?

Gill Wyness, a researcher in education policy at the London School of Economics and the liberal think tank CentreForum, has raised serious questions about Scotland’s higher education participation rate. Research revealed startling levels of inequality in attainment between Scottish pupils from different socio-economic groups, Wyness writes in The Guardian. Wyness’s main question stemmed from numbers just not adding up: “How can Scotland’s higher education participation rate be so high when many of Scotland’s young people do not appear to be achieving the results to get into degree program?”

The higher education initial participation rate (which measures the proportion of 16-30 year olds in higher education) stood at 56% in Scotland in 2011, 7 percentage points higher than England’s 49%.

Scotland puts a strong focus on compulsory school education. Around 80% of young people in Scotland achieve five or more standard grades – roughly the same figure as GCSE attainment in England. But at the next level of education, essential for entrance to university, attainment of Scottish pupils is surprisingly low compared with England.

In Scotland, 37% of young people achieved three or more Highers, enough to get into some but not all degree programs at Scottish colleges and universities, by the end of sixth year in 2011.

Wyness says the answer is in the vocabulary used to categorize students.

The answer may lie in the Scottish executive’s definition of higher education, which includes one and two year higher national diploma (HND) and higher national certificate (HNC) courses as well as degrees. Statistics show that almost half of Scotland’s higher education students are actually studying for the former.

Scotland’s education system offers flexibility and promotes shorter courses that can be extended later. The research, however, finds that individuals with fewer years of education gain lower wage returns on average. Also, HNDs and HNCs may carry less cachet in job markets in England and overseas that makes Scotland’s economy potentially more insular.

But a further and potentially more damning issue emerges around inequality of educational outcomes. Our research revealed startling levels of inequality in attainment between Scottish pupils from different socio-economic groups. As early as age seven, there are large differences in reading and maths attainment between children from rich and poor backgrounds.

The Guardian’s datablog reveals that in 2011, only 220 or 2% of the poorest fifth of Scottish pupils managed to achieve sufficient grades in their fifth year to get them into one of the best universities, versus 17% of the richest fifth.

The Scottish Government’s new post-16 education bill says that 11% of students attending university in 2010/11 came from the 20% most deprived areas. The bill aims to target this group and ensure they have “fair access” to education.

This seems like a laudable goal, and it’s good news that the inequality in our education system is being brought into the referendum debate. But the fact remains that Scotland’s long devolved education system has done little to tackle this shameful issue. Inequality is a deep-rooted problem which starts in youth, and an independent Scotland will have to focus its resources far beyond post-16 outcomes if it wants to get to grips with it, Wyness writes.