Freddie Fforde, President of the Students’ Association, has hit back at a Scotsman article which used the low number of disadvantaged students at St Andrews to lambast the University for being “patronised by royalty and other opulent tax avoiders”.
The rebuttal was made as the University warned that it “expects to face a considerable and continuing challenge to widen access, because so few young people from Scotland’s most deprived areas are achieving basic university grades.”
The Scotsman article, written by Hugh Reilly and published on 24 April 2012, painted a scathing image of the University, saying it only “allowed its elite student population to be diluted with 15% of children born of lowly commoners.” Yet the Students’ Association President claimed “the real issue” was that rhetoric like Reilly’s discourages students from disadvantaged backgrounds from applying to St Andrews.
The Association President wrote in a letter to The Scotsman on 21 November 2012: “Faced with such ugly rhetoric, I’m not surprised that many students don’t apply.
“If Reilly continues to paint a St Andrews ‘denial’ to those who deserve it, then he sadly perpetuates the very image which he and I both regret. The victims? Those who no longer feel comfortable applying.”
He claimed that during his campaign for Association President, he had found that one of the “key issues” which St Andrews students wanted to tackle was “the task of widening access to an education here.”
Fforde’s letter coincides with claims from the University that “it was time to stop demonising higher education alone for poor progression rates”, and that, instead, more focus should be placed on “health, employment and a culture of attainment at all levels of Scottish education” in order for more Scottish youngsters to attain the required entry grades and be able to succeed at university.
“We have a choice – we can continue to beat up our universities for failing to admit more kids from our most deprived areas, or we can start, without shame or blame, to ask if perhaps there is something going wrong throughout the whole equation,” said Stephen Magee, Vice-Principal with responsibility for admissions at St Andrews.
“We could play the political game and change these figures overnight by lowering our entry grades, but experience tells us that we would simply be admitting these kids to fail, and that would be utterly dishonest,” he said.
As part of its targets to widen access for 2012/13, the University plans to increase the intake of Scottish students from the 20 most deprived Scottish postcode areas (SIMD20) by 45%.
Reilly’s article in The Scotsman condemned Scottish universities in general for admitting “only a miserable 27.2 per cent” of students from lower social class groups last year, but he was particularly critical of St Andrews, which currently has the lowest proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in Scotland.
“The appalling Scottish average figure hid the embarrassing variation between Scottish academic institutions,” Reilly wrote. According to the University, a Freedom of Information request to the Scottish government showed that, “of the 8,872 Scottish fifth year pupils from the country’s most deprived areas who sat Highers in 2011, only 220 achieved 3 A passes or better.
“Of these 220, 55 included St Andrews as a choice on their UCAS applications. St Andrews made offers to 34 of these students, 14 of whom accepted,” a spokesman said.
Robin Parker, President of NUS Scotland, criticised St Andrews’ targets. “It’s welcome that St Andrews are accepting that they can do more… However, their plans will see only an additional six students per year enter St Andrews University. That’s minuscule by any standard,” he said.