20 February, 2019
An article by the BBC earlier today reported on the intention of Scottish Universities to lower the entry requirements to students from disadvantaged areas. The intention is not to guarantee those gaining the grades a place, but to take students over the threshold for consideration. For example, applicants for a law degree at Edinburgh University would normally be required to have five A grade Highers, where as those from disadvantaged areas will now be considered with one A and 4 B's.
A spokesman for the for the University explained that applications would be considered on a variety of factors and not just on grades earned.
"The University is committed to widening access and welcomes applications from students from diverse backgrounds, while ensuring we support every student throughout their academic journey. Our contextualised admissions process allows us to make offers to Widening Participation applicants, who meet the minimum academic requirements, using our Access Threshold - which takes into account a range of factors other than academic qualifications."
Such moves create an interesting debate surrounding the legalities and necessity for positive discrimination in respect of university admissions. Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, explained that universities are making the move because it is "the right thing to do".
"This is not about ticking boxes for universities - it's about giving people chances they have worked very hard to earn, often with the odds stacked against them, with the confidence to know they have as much potential to get as good a degree as their peers. Every student that gets a place at university through this new system will fully deserve their place, that's a responsibility that universities have to all applicants and one they take very seriously."
Similar moves have been made in the past by English universities. The Office for Students in England states that:
"Some groups of people are less likely to achieve the qualifications needed to study in higher education and these gaps in achievement are apparent from a young age. Higher education can improve and indeed transform lives for those who gain access to and succeed in it, while entrenching disadvantage for those who don't. It can compound the social mobility problem or contribute to its solution. We want higher education to be more representative of wider society and reduce the attainment gaps between underrepresented groups and other groups. We also want to support higher education providers to work in more effective ways to improve access and participation so that the considerable investments they make have the greatest possible impact."
The scheme is supported by both Westminster and the Scottish government, and is reflective of the move in anti-discrimination law in the United Kingdom away from a concentration on remedies for inconsistent treatment towards the acceptance of the need for positive measures aimed at both protecting and also advancing the position of an under-represented group. Although the introduction of positive measures can be criticised as conflicting with the background principle that individuals should be treated equally, it is clear that positive action is needed to ensure equal opportunities for all. It is not the equality of access that is relevant, but ultimately the equality of results.