Edinburgh University access - a phenomenal achievement or a breach of natural fairness?

Is the fact no students from more affluent backgrounds got a place at Edinburgh University to study law in 2022 a good thing, or a bad thing? As ever in politics, it depends who you ask.

The figures, obtained by Scottish Labour from the University of Edinburgh, show of 1,200 applicants and 170 places, zero came from areas or schools not considered to be deprived or low attainment.

This is arguably a phenomenal achievement for one of the SNP’s top priorities – enabling more of those historically least likely to go to university to move on to higher education.

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If you judge Nicola Sturgeon on education as she famously said you should, this is a success story under the policy approach of the Government.

Data showed no applicants from non-widening access backgrounds were accepted to nine courses.Data showed no applicants from non-widening access backgrounds were accepted to nine courses.
Data showed no applicants from non-widening access backgrounds were accepted to nine courses.

However, Labour’s education spokesperson Michael Marra points at how the funding model of universities in Scotland, which caps the number of places available to Scottish students, effectively sees foreign students paying thousands of pounds to jump the queue.

This cap, plus the drive to widen access, means swathes of young Scots have “no chance of getting in”, Mr Marra says. And the numbers seem to back him up.

This is known as ‘displacement’ – a topic tackled by the Government’s Commissioner for Fair Access, Peter Scott, in his annual report from 2019.

Mr Scott argued any displacement that had taken place is a “reflection of a growing consciousness” around the importance of “fairer, and necessarily more equal, access to higher education”.

He adds lifting the cap on student places would accelerate the narrowing of the gap between the more affluent and most deprived, all while reducing the number of students who suffer an “absolute reduction in their chances of securing university places”.

The other side of this coin is the argument around fairness and meritocracy.

Some opposition politicians will argue applicants should be judged purely on merit, and that where they came from or their background should have no impact on their chances.

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Does widening access in the manner of Edinburgh fulfil that natural sense of justice, especially when they speak of guaranteeing places for the most disadvantaged? And what about those from average schools in average areas who miss out and do not fit the stereotype of affluence?

Or, should universities and policy makers take into account that not all backgrounds are equal, and not all schools are the same? As always, it depends who you ask.

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