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Does the growth in EU numbers affect opportunities for Scots?

August 15, 2014

This post identified that the recent UCAS figures showed a particularly rapid rise in the number of EU-domiciled students accepted onto courses in Scotland, at least at this stage.  This piece in The Herald has picked up the same point.  It notes that these students are in competition with Scots for free tuition places here, but adds:

However, the figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) show no signs that Scots are being pushed out with record numbers already accepted.  Nearly 26,600 Scottish-domiciled students have secured a place to study in Scotland – an increase of four per cent compared to 2013.

A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, said: “These students compete with Scottish peers – but it’s important to keep the increase in perspective. “The increase in EU students is dwarfed by increased numbers of Scots placed this year which is close to three times the increase of EU students we have seen.”

This post questions the proposition that the rising number of accepted Scots means no other Scots are being displaced by the growth in EU numbers.

The number of accepted Scots is rising (by 3.7% for all Scots who applied for a place through UCAS, compared to this point last year, and 4.1% just looking at Scots in Scotland who benefit from free tuition).  Moreover, acceptances are rising faster for now than the 2% increase in applications from Scotland this year.

However, in 2013 the acceptance rate for young Scots was only 75%: that is, a quarter of 18 year-old applicants did not get a place.   There may be arguments to be had about what the “right” rejection rate should be,  but we do know that  acceptance rates in Scotland have fallen in recent years. Between 2004 and 2009 they ran at around 80%, fell to 73% in 2011 and only slowly rose again after that.  Last year, they were still substantially lower  than those in England or Wales, which sit either side of 85%, though  Northern Ireland is also on 75%.  See  Table 15 UCAS end of cycle report 2013 (pdf) (2185.6KB).

So even if absolute numbers are growing, that’s against the backdrop of a relatively large (whether in historic or cross-UK terms) gap between available places and demand in Scotland.  Also, if the most recent UCAS figures hold, and there is less growth in those going out of Scotland to study, by definition acceptances in Scotland need to increase simply to accommodate the increased demand for a place in-country.

There is also a widening access issue. Some 3,000 extra places were announced for the current year with a specific emphasis on widening access. If one-quarter of any growth in student numbers goes to EU students then this growth is not benefiting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in Scotland as much as intended.  UCAS early analysis by background (the POLAR 2 document) showed Scotland doing well at this stage on improving the percentage of acceptances from the lowest participation neighbourhoods (up 13% this year, second only to Wales on 17%), but it was still showing the largest gap in the UK in the share of acceptances between the lowest and highest participation neighourhoods. More generally, the more mobile students are internationally, the more likely they are to be from relatively advantaged backgrounds in their own country.  The existing social mix of universities is more likely to be reinforced than changed as EU numbers grow.

A diverse, international student body is a good thing.  But unless all the rejected Scots simply were not deemed good enough for a university place at all, EU students must be displacing Scots and the more EU students there are, the less well the system can accommodate local demand.

In 2012-13, the 13,385 EU students represented 10% of the SAAS caseload: see here (NB the figure of £24m shown for spending on this group is only the cost to SAAS and does not include funding channeled through the Scottish Funding Council, which will be two to three times as much again).  The equivalent figure a decade ago was 5,865,   5% of the total. The 7,520 additional EU students represent just over half the total growth in numbers supported by SAAS over the period: that is, there are as many extra EU students as extra Scots, compared to 2004-05.  In the most recent UCAS figures, 15 EU students have been accepted for a place for every 100 Scots.  The UK average is 6 per 100 (just 3 per hundred in Northern Ireland).

Wales and Northern Ireland are  seeing a similar rate of growth in EU numbers, a slightly higher percentage in fact, but from a much lower base, so that any displacement effects are at the margins. In Scotland, by contrast, there are now enough  fully-funded EU students to fill a decent-sized university, with their numbers growing each year.

So it’s worth acknowledging that the issue of “fee refugees” and displacement which has been so prominent in the constitutional debate is not a theoretical one, but one which Scottish applicants to university are already dealing with and the limits to which we simply do not know.



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