Image: Flickr / Michael D Beckwith

Higher education gap between richest and poorest pupils widens in Scotland

The gap between students from the richest and poorest communities who attend university is the largest in six years, government figures show.

Less than a third of students (27%) from the most deprived parts of Scotland continued to higher education, compared to nearly two-thirds (62.6%) from the most affluent areas. 

The education gulf is the largest recorded since the academic year 2014-2015, as revealed by Scottish government statistics. It has grown since 2016, when Nicola Sturgeon asked to be judged on her “defining mission” to close the wealth-related attainment gap. 

The number of young people finding work after school has also reached its lowest level, as Covid-19 triggered the deepest recession in centuries. Youth unemployment has risen from 5.8% to 6.8% compared to last year, and the proportion of those who successfully go into work has reached a record low.

Together, the proportion of students from the most deprived areas who went on to a “positive follow-up destination” – college, university, training and jobs – fell by 0.7% compared to last year. Pupils from the most affluent areas saw a slightly higher drop of 0.8%.

This year’s most popular destination was university, with a record of 42.9% of students ending up in higher education, the largest statistic to date since comparable records began in 2009-2010. 

However, this was driven by a 5.4%  increase among the most affluent pupils, as the proportion of poorest school-leavers gaining a place in university only improved by 2.5%.

I want our work to close the attainment gap to be the mission not just of this government or even this parliament, but of the country as a whole.

– Nicola Sturgeon

Jamie Hepburn, the higher education, further education, youth employment, and training minister, said: “I am pleased that the proportion of young people in a follow-up positive destination is still at a high level, and a record-high proportion is in higher education nine months after the end of the school year.

“However, this year’s statistics clearly highlight the impact of the pandemic on young people, with a sizeable decrease in those entering employment reflecting the limited opportunities in the labour market.”

Following the May 2016 election, Ms Sturgeon stated in a major speech: “I want our work to close the attainment gap to be the mission not just of this government or even this parliament, but of the country as a whole.”

An independent report by the Auditor General in March found that progress “falls short of the Scottish Government’s aims”.


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