‘Students should focus on education, free of financial worries’

This was originally posted on STV Local on Sunday 29th July.

In March students at the University of Edinburgh elected me to be their Student President, so I now represent all 30,000 of them to the University, government and wider community.

I ran on a clear vision of what universities should be. They should be public institutions, focused on learning and knowledge, where students and academics work together to further understand and improve our world.

They shouldn’t be motivated by profit or commercial interests, but by its mission to serve society. Universities should be run for the benefit of staff, students and the wider community, so the people with the most to gain from education should be able to access it.

Unfortunately, despite their good work Edinburgh does not have a good record at this. Last year, of the 1800 new undergraduates from Scotland, only 90 came from the bottom 20% of disadvantaged neighbourhoods. This is a terrible statistic. Universities should mirror society: 20% of students should be from the bottom 20%, just as 20% should be from the top 20%.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Edinburgh University was founded in 1583 by the rich and for the rich, and at a time when few people went to school, never mind university. So the perception that Edinburgh is an elite university dates back centuries, and is difficult to change.

But that’s not to say that change is impossible. Over the last decade the university’s widening participation department has been working hard to encourage more working class students to apply to university. The Edinburgh-wide LEAPS scheme is a great example of this, providing talented students in south east Scotland with the information and encouragement to apply to higher education. More needs to be done though, by universities and by the Scottish Government.

Universities need to take widening access seriously, at all levels. This means that universities should do more to encourage the brightest students to consider higher education, and to give them the support they need to get there.

They also need to rethink their admissions procedures. A fascinating study at the University of Bristol showed that students who come to university from a poor school but with decent grades tend to perform as well students with excellent grades from a well-funded school. In other words, grades don’t just measure ability – they measure quality of teaching as well. This may sound obvious, but the implications are huge: universities should be offering lower entry requirements to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This isn’t social engineering – it’s just making sure that everyone has the opportunities that they deserve.

The Scottish Government is currently pushing universities to commit to increasing numbers of students from these poorer neighbourhoods. And that’s great, but it’s not just universities who are responsible for widening access, the Government must play the key role in creating an equal and fair society. It needs to make sure that primary and secondary education is the best it can be. It needs to stick to its promise not to introduce tuition fees. And it needs to provide adequate support so that students can focus on their education, free from financial worries.

I’m looking forward to spending the next year fighting for this.

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