20 August 2021

How ‘free’ university is pricing Scottish students out of a world-class education

By Sarah Brown

Is there no end to Scotland’s education woes? At the end of an academic year that saw lower passes across National 5, Highers and Advanced Highers, many disappointed A-grade students are being rejected from the top Scottish universities.

No wonder livid parents have complained to Scotland’s Education Secretary that “every other nation has a better chance of going to a Scottish university than we do”. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for parents and students who have worked hard, achieved the top grades and now find themselves seemingly shut out for the opportunities of higher education.

It’s even more galling when they see Scottish universities offering courses only to English and international students, but not Scottish or EU ones. For instance, as the Daily Record notes, Glasgow University had 29 courses available to hopefuls from elsewhere in the UK through clearing, compared to just five for Scottish students. Aberdeen, meanwhile, had 390 courses available to English students and none for Scots.

This situation is an inevitable consequence of a funding model in which the incentives of Scotland’s government, universities and students are fundamentally at odds with each other. Scottish school leavers naturally lean towards institutions in their home country, given that there are no tuition fees, while the institutions themselves are better off taking applicants from beyond their borders. The Scottish government, meanwhile, caps the number of Scottish students to keep costs down.

The problem rises when funding for places fails to keep up with demand. Or, as Universities Scotland puts it: “Universities can only recruit to fill the places available and if there is high demand for places it creates the situation we have now.”  The Department for Education in Scotland makes a great play of its full funding for students who go to Scottish universities, but offers only tuition fee loans to those who decide to study elsewhere in the UK.

Another pernicious consequence of this funding set-up is that there are proportionately fewer Scottish students at the 24 highly rated research Russell Group (RG) universities, only two of which (Glasgow and Edinburgh) are north of the border. Indeed, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency for the last academic year show that just 16.5% of Scottish students attended RG institutions, compared to 21.5% of English, 21.8% of Welsh and 37% of Northern Irish students – and most of those Scottish RG students are at Glasgow or Edinburgh, not south of the border.

Not only does this deprive Scottish students of huge educational opportunities at world-class institutions, but it has knock-on effects on their career path and future earnings too, because of the attraction of Russell Group graduates to top employers. Scottish law graduates, for example, earn half as much as Oxford and Cambridge alumni after five years, according to government education and tax records. 

As well as the skewed tuition fees incentives, Scottish state school students face the same academic hurdles as their counterparts elsewhere in the UK. Top universities have belatedly begun to address this issue: Cambridge launched a £500 million fundraising campaign in 2018, in part to pay for a new “transition year” programme for state-educated and underprivileged youngsters to build the skills and knowledge needed to start a degree. At Oxford too the balance has now shifted markedly, with nearly 70% of incoming pupils are now from state schools.

So why do fewer students from Scots state schools still make it to these top universities? 

Part of the problem is that few apply in the first place. Michael McGrade, a state school leaver from Glasgow who has just completed a History degree at Oxford, decided to look into the figures through a series of Freedom of Information requests. He found that in 2018 only 112 Scottish students applied to Oxford, and of the 55 who were successful just 21 came from state schools (at Cambridge the figures were 50 and 22 respectively). McGrade has now set up the Clydeside Project, a mentoring scheme to help bright Scottish state school students to follow in his footsteps.

Oxford and Cambridge provide generous bursaries to low-income students across the UK – including Scotland – and that is to be applauded. But for those at, say, the London School of Economics, there is comparatively little financial support available. The Scottish funding board, SAAS, does not even adjust its maintenance loan to offset the substantially higher living costs in London. It’s little surprise then that the mostly affluent private school leavers are over-represented in the admissions figures.

Another factor that distinguishes the 5% of Scots who attend fee-paying schools is that they are more likely to take A Levels, rather than the Scottish equivalents. indeed, at schools like Fettes in Edinburgh and Strathallan in Perth, the Sixth Form prospectus explicitly advises those wishing to study outside Scotland to take A levels. 

All of this adds up to a system where Scottish school leavers are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Apply to Scottish institutions and they risk not being admitted – as the latest figures make all too clear – or apply elsewhere in the UK and rack up huge tuition fee debt. As McGrade pithily puts it: “How can we pretend that this is a system based on meritocracy when the majority of Scotland’s best and brightest are effectively being priced out?

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Sarah Brown is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.