'Watchdog needed' to ensure university access for poor

AN INDEPENDENT body should be set up to ensure that Scotland's universities target more people from deprived backgrounds, student leaders said yesterday.

Scottish institutions should do more to educate poor students without compromising entry requirements, according to the National Union of Students Scotland. The NUSS will make its suggestion for an "independent widening access unit" in its contribution to education secretary Mike Russell's green paper on higher education funding.

Scotland has the worst record in the UK for recruiting school-leavers from poor backgrounds, and also lags England, Wales and Northern Ireland when it comes to the proportion of students coming from state schools.

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The most recent figures show that only 28.2 per cent of students in Scotland come from the lowest socio-economic groups (4-7), which compares unfavourably with the UK average of 33.2 per cent. The NUSS believes that universities should be set targets for recruiting under-privileged school-leavers. Should that fail to redress the balance, financial penalties should be imposed for failing to meet targets.

In its contribution to the green paper, the NUSS will say that this should not amount to a quota system, but would be based on a calculation of how many poor students each university ought to be taking.

In England, the Office for Fair Access deals with such issues. Last week Business Secretary Vince Cable ordered a government watchdog to "focus more sharply" on institutions - such as Oxford and Cambridge - that have struggled to increase the proportion of places they award to working-class candidates.

NUSS president Liam Burns yesterday said: "Scotland has among the worst records for widening access and drop-out in the UK, wasting huge amounts of money but, more importantly, wasting huge amounts of talent. Ruling out tuition fees and improving student support will go a good way to making higher education fairer. However, every single institution - from the oldest to the newest university - needs to take responsibility too.

"An independent widening access unit would be a great step forward and would throw down the gauntlet to every institution in Scotland to do more on making university based on ability, not based on background."

He added: "This is not about dumbing down; it's about getting those talented people that are currently overlooked fair access to education."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "Widening access for post-school education is an issue to be addressed at every stage of educational development. Clearly, there are still challenges facing higher education and widening access. That's why we have encouraged bold and innovative thinking to find a unique solution, through the green paper published in December."