Media Watch - Scotland's poorest students 50% more likely to get to University than in England

Scotland’s Unionist media used this week’s Higher results as an opportunity to attack Scotland’s education system.  They largely did not report that Scotland’s other widening access strategies mean that the percentage of students from the most deprived areas who attend university in Scotland is a whopping 50% higher than England’s. 

These numbers are rising to record-breaking highs for those from the poorest areas and have also risen in nursing - but while STV reported this, most media outlets ignored it, focusing on raw exam results, which showed the poorest students have suffered most from the pandemic. 

STV reported: “The number of 18-year-olds from the most deprived areas in Scotland being offered a place at university is at a record high, according to official statistics. UCAS data shows that the figure is up by 32% since 2019 – the last year there were exams. The figures indicate that the number of students accepting places to study nursing at Scottish providers also increased, up 17% to 2,940 compared to 2019.”

Scotland will likely improve on the tally of around 16% of students from deprived areas who have gone to Uni the last few years - while England’s 11% has been stagnant for some time. Will the UK government face the same hostile press as Scotland’s if it does not improve on this? 

Now it's not our job to defend the SNP but it is our job to fact-check Scotland's biased media. These are not just attacks on the SNP - they are effectively attacks on Scotland.  Newspapers such as The Mail, The Express and the Telegraph aim to put Scotland down - they would be just as negative about a Labour Government in Holyrood. Which makes it all the more embarrassing that Labour politicians play up to them and share the anti-Scottish headlines. 

Biased Headlines.

BBC’s Cook misses the massive attainment gap between Scotland and England

In a negative and political piece, BBC Scotland editor James Cook claimed to look at efforts to close the attainment gap asking

“So how is that going? Badly”. 

By confining the report to raw results without looking at how Scottish universities are working to contextualise them, Cook somehow missed the massive attainment gap between Scotland and England in this area. He was not alone. 

The Express reported

“Nicola Sturgeon's 'shame' as attainment gap widens on Higher and National 5 exam results day”. 

The Daily Telegraph 's Scotland edition read:

“Scotland’s poorest teenagers ‘betrayed’ by Nicola Sturgeon as exam pass rates plummet. ‘Badge of shame’ for First Minister as ‘chasm’ widens between the most disadvantaged and the wealthiest”

Covid impacts the raw exam results of the poorest students more

It is not surprising that the Covid lockdown impacted poorer students’ results more than the middle classes. It is easier to work from home if you have great Wifi, fresh fish for lunch and a well-off parent who doesn't work shifts at the other side of the kitchen table.  

Higher results showed worsening results for the poorest students since schools returned to formal exams. These will likely be echoed when A levels come out in a few weeks. But Scotland has successful policies in place to make it easier for those students to build on what they have managed and go on to achieve a degree. 

Scottish students don’t face backbreaking debt load if they choose to go to Uni

One major difference is that students from deprived backgrounds from Scotland who choose to study for a degree do not have to shoulder the load of debt that UK students do.  The repayment threshold in the UK will be cut from £27,295 to £25,000 for new “borrowers” starting courses from September 2023.

That means that comparatively low-earning UK graduates will lose 9 percent of everything they earn over the earning threshold for 40 years - a tax that the richest students will never have to pay because they can afford to clear the tuition fees upfront. 

That unfairness contributes to the reluctance of poorer students south of the border to aspire to a University degree. Evidence suggests that it is the poorest students who are most put off by this debt - they are aware of the difficulty a lower-paid person can have in clearing it. 

The Scottish tertiary education system provides ramps between different courses

Scottish Unis are encouraged to look at the context of a student’s educational background at every area and have made significant progress. Every Scottish university already takes context into account and there are moves for the sector to work more closely together on this. It is also relatively easy for Scottish students to move from an HNC at a local college into the third year of a degree course.


The problems of poverty are currently being worsened by the UK government’s appalling record on energy and the cost of living. That will impact many children. Who can learn when food and fuel is hard to come by? The cost of living crisis will impact many aspects of society including the attainment gap. 

There is a need for improvement in Scotland and more can be achieved, despite the huge constraints on what the Scottish government can do. However, any honest appraisal of Higher results should look at the wider education picture.

Scotland is already managing to do significantly better than England when it comes to the attainment gap. As an independent country, Scotland would have the levers to do even more. 

Further Reading
Scottish Funding Council report on widening access.

By Jackie Kemp