Do university schemes for deprived-area students work?

Edinburgh University is lowering their entry requirements for students from deprived areas. It’s in a bid to meet a target set by the Scottish government that would see 16% of all students from deprived backgrounds in universities by 2021. While they wouldn’t be guaranteed a place, more deprived students would be considered. And with continued success, that figure is set to increase to 20% by 2030. I ask: is it enough? Will disadvantaged students see any benefit beyond bureaucracy?

The Good

The scheme aims to target students in areas classified as deprived, as their household income will, generally, be lower in these zones. Consequently, they may be deprived of key materials necessary for a successful school life – such as internet access and writing resources. As a result, they may not prosper effectively. Reducing grade requirements could help talented students get their foot in the door of esteemed institutions, where natural ability can be nurtured outside of a school setting.

Edinburgh’s scheme may appear revolutionary, but it is, in reality, nothing new. Other institutions have offered similar schemes for years, such as The University of Birmingham’s Access to Birmingham (A2B) programme. A2B offers students a module to complete while at school which will make their transition into University smoother. Completion of the module can reduce the requirements of an offer by up to two grades, downgrading AAA offers to ABB, for instance. This has made Birmingham far more accessible to typically disadvantaged students.

Likewise, Edinburgh’s scheme will see offers decreased; Law, for example, a subject typically requiring five As in a student’s Scottish Highers, would be reduced to four As and a B. Clearly, Edinburgh is not planning to hand out places to under-achievers.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the scheme crumbles under scrutiny. Currently, students are defined as deprived based on their postcode, which considers challenges in their area, such as income, poverty and unemployment. As it is a sweeping scheme, it doesn’t consider the individual ways in which students in an area are disadvantaged. For instance, two different single parents may be solely responsible for their children, but one could be blessed with relatives who help with childcare. Conversely, the other parent might struggle to afford food while fitting in 50-hour working weeks. Likewise, living just outside the postcode catchment will result in exclusion from the scheme, despite being potentially just as disadvantaged than those within the area.

There are alternatives to the ways in which deprivation is assessed, but none are perfect. One alternative suggests aiding students who are the first in their family to attend Uni. Perhaps their siblings were incapable of attending because they missed their offer, or it could be that they simply weren’t interested in further education. Assessment of deprivation will always be difficult to assess based on blanket statements alone.

Alternatives?

Edinburgh University’s programme is certainly a worthwhile one, but it isn’t without its flaws. Clearly, it’s difficult to define what constitutes a deprived background – and I’m hardly qualified to make that call. But what is increasingly clear is that multiple factors – as well as individual circumstances – must be accounted for in our assessment of deprivation. Otherwise, students will continue to fall through the cracks.

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