Devil’s Advocate: Should Scottish universities lower their entry requirements for underprivileged students?

Peter Bothwell and Max Waller debate the pros and cons of one university access method.



When the idea of this Devil’s Advocate piece was brought up in our writers’ meeting, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm from any writer to choose a side – not from a lack of interest in the issue, but from the inability of anyone to make up their minds on the subject. After some thought, I believe that Scottish universities should lower the entry requirements for underprivileged students, but in no way is this an easy solution to the question.
To find the answer to this question, we must first address the confusion people face when trying to address it. On one hand, we are aware that there is an inexcusable gap in the levels of primary and secondary education received by those with financial access to private schools compared to those without. On the other, we feel that we have to respect academic integrity or we will end up creating a two-tiered class system within our universities.
Confusion arises because we are trying to address the question from the current situation we are in, but the truth is we should not need to ask universities to lower the entry requirements for underprivileged students. The problem we find ourselves with is not a problem of university policy, but a systematic problem in how we view education in this country, and how we have allowed the educational system to develop.
Education is about more than equipping students for a future job, whether that be prime minister, doctor, or electrician, it is about opening up the world to all students: through the sciences and the arts we can attempt to understand the world and ourselves.
The private school system has a monopoly on the most important resource necessary for student development: good teachers. There is no way that already underfunded state schools can compete, leaving their students at a serious disadvantage when trying to achieve a university place. For this reason Scottish universities, in our current system, must lower their entry requirements for underprivileged students, for if they do not they have taken away the chance for students who are as bright, if not brighter, than those in better circumstances, to achieve their full potential.
We here in St Andrews accept the second least state school students with only Oxford surpassing us. Only 6.5 percent of students in the United Kingdom are educated in private schools, yet 40 percent of St Andrews students come from the private education system. However, as many of you will agree, we cannot blame the university for wanting to keep up their academic standards – the solution lies in reform of our education system. But while we remain in this current system, something must be done to help those held back by it.
“But reform is coming!” I hear you shout, “Our wonderful government is in the process of lifting the ban on grammar schools.” Many believe this to be the solution to many of our problems; however, there are two reasons why this will leave us in the same, if not a worse, position in our education system than we are already in today.
Firstly, nothing is being done to tackle private schools, meaning we will see the same drain of good teachers we experience in our current system away from grammar schools to private. It is also ridiculous to expect all private school students will move to a grammar school all of a sudden, especially when the good teachers remain at the private schools.
Secondly, grammar schools fail those in non-grammar schools: remember, there was a reason we banned them in the first place. I am going to be honest, without the Northern Irish grammar school system I probably would not be at this university, but I know first-hand how the system fails those unfortunate enough to not be in a grammar school, leaving students barely equipped to find any job, never mind opening up the wonders of the world and themselves.
Our education system needs to be reformed into a system that gives everyone access to good teachers; this comes from neither the private or the grammar school system. We know there is a lot of opposition to this reform and it will take a long time, which is why Scottish universities must lead by example and lower their entry requirements for underprivileged students, giving them the chances the primary and secondary education systems have taken from them.
Maybe if St Andrews could shake off its private school persona, we could finally get a McDonalds in this town.
– Peter Bothwell



Scottish universities should not lower their entry requirements for underprivileged students because it removes the burden of dealing with bad teaching and failed education policies from state schools, and the Scottish government, to universities. Implementing such a broad policy not only undermines the integrity of a degree from Scottish universities but insults those of us who got into university on merit.
To get more underprivileged people into university, the education system needs to get better. Under the Scottish National Party, literacy rates have fallen, and the percentage of students at a university from impoverished backgrounds is, relative to England, very unimpressive: 9.7 per cent of Scottish students come from impoverished backgrounds, compared to 17 percent of students in English universities. When you consider that university is free in Scotland this seems ridiculous, but it makes sense when you consider that the headline grabbing “free university for all” comes at a detriment to the poorest students, who no longer receive bursaries from the Scottish government because the money has been spent on their tuition fees.
Now, for a radical suggestion: perhaps what is needed is for there to be a tuition fee, repaid after university as is in England, thus freeing up resources for the state to give grants or loans to the poorest of the poor, so as to allowing them to afford to go to university. This, in combination with an education system that is geared towards success – perhaps by copying techniques deployed in London inner-city schools – would allow for more underprivileged students to go to university. The result would be a long-term, sustainable increase in underprivileged students going to university, bringing all of the advantages of social mobility with it.
The children would be able to compete equally for places on merit; surely, this is better than labelling them as disadvantaged and then not offering any solution to the problem?
This would get more underprivileged students into university and it would not undermine the integrity of Scotland’s university system. To implement a system where some are admitted on merit and others are admitted on account of their lack of privilege would just create a two-tier system. How on earth are students who have never been given the opportunity to learn meant to compete with those who have? Are we to consider them so disadvantaged that they should just be given first-class degrees to compensate for the disadvantages they had due to their education? I think not.
While St Andrews is known for being a posh university with lots of people who went to private school, that does not mean it should open the doors to people who are not capable of competing because they have been failed by the education system. If we truly wish to excel, we have to maintain high standards: lowering them on the whim of a devolved administration that is refusing to own up to its own mistakes is not going to help. What is unfair is not that universities’ entry standards are too high, but that people are not being given an education they deserve.
Even if Scottish universities do open the doors and follow through with this disastrous interference into the autonomy of universities, I would be willing to bet that it would not help anyone.
Author Malcolm Gladwell cites a study where the bottom quarter of any student body, irrespective of the school or entrance grades achieved by the students, experiences a ridiculous high dropout rate. In other words, people think they are failing at Harvard, when if they had gone somewhere else they have might have been on track for a first.
The lesson is clear: the way to improve social mobility and to help disadvantaged students is not to let them in because they are disadvantaged, but to let them in on merit so that they can be in the top quartile.
To admit them on merit requires a top notch education system, and this requires a devolved administration that is prepared to take action rather than shift the onus of responsibility onto universities who can do little to help with the root of the problem.
This way, the underprivileged would be able to compete, and the integrity of the system would remain intact whilst creating greater social mobility.
– Max Waller


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