Scottish children from the poorest backgrounds are less likely to go to university than those from the rest of the UK, a new report has revealed.
New research by the Sutton Trust shows that, although there has been a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor young people entering higher education across the UK, young people from the fifth most advantaged areas north of the border are four times more likely to go to university than those in the fifth least advantaged areas.
The equivalent figure in England is 2.4 times, and in Wales and Northern Ireland they are three times more likely to do so.
Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Liz Smith said: “This damning report confirms that Scotland still has some way to go when it comes to offering the same opportunities to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
It comes after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs her priority for government was to improve access to education.
She pledged to have make closing the attainment gap between schools “the mission, not just of this government or even this parliament, but of the country as a whole”.
The study Access in Scotland, led by Professor Sheila Riddell of the University of Edinburgh,said that virtually all the growth in higher education places for disadvantaged students in Scotland over the last decade has been provided by colleges rather than universities.
It said that while Scots are more likely than their English counterparts to enter some form of higher education, they are less likely to be able to go straight to university, and many of those that do so through such “articulation” often have to repeat at least one year.
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Scotland faces a shocking access gap, and it is vital that the government appoints a strong independent commissioner without delay.”
Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray said: “This shows definitively that Scotland lags behind the rest of the UK when it comes to university access for students from poorer families.”
A Universities Scotland spokesperson said: “We understand the temptation to compare Scotland with England on access, as with all things, however it is not always meaningful or helpful because our systems of education at school, college and university level are now so different.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Access to university for students from the most deprived areas has increased by 29 per cent since this government came to office. The Sutton Trust report acknowledges that progress has been made on widening access, however we are clear that there is much more still to do.
“That is why we introduced the Commission for Widening Access and have committed to implementing in full its recommendations. Indeed, the recommendations set out by the Sutton Trust are already being taken forward in Scotland following the Commission’s report.
“However, some of the report’s findings are based on misconceptions that do not accurately reflect the position as regards widening access in Scotland.
“For example, it is simply wrong to state that university places supported by additional funding will end in 2016/17. In reality the places will be mainstreamed into core funding and the higher education sector agreed to this at the outset of the initiative.
“The Trust’s argument on additional places also fails to acknowledge the Commission’s finding that simply supplying additional places does not address the systemic problems that can restrict access.
“The report makes comparisons between England and Scotland on participation among young people from the most and least disadvantaged areas. However, this is done using figures from UCAS that are not comparable. For example, the UCAS figures do not include the large number of Scottish students who apply to study higher education courses in colleges yet do include applicants to colleges in England, where 6 per cent of English higher education is delivered.
“The report suggests that the overall participation rate for higher education is lower in Scotland than in England. However, it fails to take account of the significantly different context in Scotland whereby a significant proportion of higher education takes place in colleges. When participation in college is factored in, the Scottish higher education participation rate is significantly higher than in England.”