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80% of clearing places for Scots in 3 institutions

August 4, 2015

The limited number of places in clearing for Scots who wish to study in Scotland, and benefit from free tuition, has become an annual news item. The distribution of these has received less attention.

The Scottish Government needs to control tightly the cost of the system and therefore the number of students recruited. Media reporting so far this year has been quite careful (see here and here for example) to explain that (a) this is the reason that far fewer choices are available to Scots (and EU students) in clearing than for those from other parts of the UK, who bring their funding with them over the border, and (b) that students from the rest of the UK are therefore not getting places at the expense of Scots.  On-line discussion suggests that this point is still not always well-understood, but becoming better appreciated.

A look at clearing today brings out a less-discussed aspect of the system.  The table below shows the number of courses (not places, NB) each Scottish institution was advertising first thing today for Scottish students.  The figures are for undergraduate degree courses lasting at least 3 years (so they exclude the LLB, a 2-year graduate entry fast track law degree, for example).

It stands out from this that 80% of available courses are at just 3 institutions (Heriot-Watt, UHI and UWS).

Aberdeen 0
Abertay 14
Dundee 3
Edinburgh 0
Edinburgh Napier 1
Glasgow 5
Glasgow Caledonian 0
Glasgow School of Art 1
Heriot Watt 75
Queen Margaret 10
Robert Gordon 3
Royal Conservatoire 0
Scotland’s Rural College 16
St Andrews 0
Stirling 3
Strathclyde 0
UHI 56
UWS 96

Source:   UCAS vacancy search tool, Tuesday 4 August

Both of Dundee’s and two of Napier’s are on courses based in partner FE colleges, and two of Glasgow’s are at its Dumfries campus. Heriot Watt’s courses unsurprisingly lean strongly towards relatively specialist science and technology subjects.

In other words, Scottish students who don’t make their initial offer and who want to benefit from free tuition will have a very limited range of choices. What space there is in the Scottish system  is very concentrated in a handful places, and there are strong overlaps with the pattern last year (see here) when UHI, UWS and SRUC were the three with plenty of availability a week after highers, although Heriot Watt was by then full.

The distribution of courses with vacancies can be summarised like this:

No of courses in clearing No of institutions
0 6
<10 6
10 to 20 3
20 to 50 0
>50 3


That brings out that not only are numbers capped, but that the way the system is funded, through providing each institution with a block of grant which is determined centrally in advance of decisions on recruitment, creates a system driven by far more by the historic location of provision rather than student choice.

As the availability of places tightens relative to demand (see here), that deserves more attention.  It is not inevitable that a fully funded system is also one which largely requires students either to follow historic recruitment patterns or else forfeit their access to free tuition.  There’s scope for ensuring the same institutions do not dominate clearing year after year,  without applying the full-blown  “weakest to the wall” approach which is coming to characterise the now uncapped, largely student demand-led system in England.

It can’t be said too much – the acceptance rate in Scotland is at a historically low level: supply is not keeping up with rising demand. That’s not necessarily an indefensible position: perhaps more of the demand is simply not worth meeting, compared to a decade ago – there would be ways of examining that.  However, a system which gave more priority to meeting student demand would still at minimum be looking at why some institutions are persistently bringing large numbers of vacancies to clearing when most others are full or almost full before it starts.  There may be specific policy reasons – say, that UHI is still relatively new  and is being deliberately built up to create demand in the highlands and islands.  But in such a tightly capped system, if any resources end up locked long-term into parts of the system for which demand is low that will be increasingly problematic for students and there ought at least to be a debate about why that is happening and whether it should continue.



Scots who cannot get a place in Scotland will be in no worse position than students from England or  Northern Ireland once the institutions south of the border come into clearing next week and can still take advantage of the uncapped system there.  As in the rest of the UK, they can get a non-means tested student loan to cover the upfront cost of the fees.

But Scots who had not previously considered going south will be looking at a decision to take on a much large cost of study at relatively short notice – their contemporaries elsewhere will at least have had longer to think about that.

Also, the persistent emphasis in Scotland on “ability to learn, not ability to pay” seems to have created a quite widespread misunderstanding here that going south means families have to find the full cost of the fee upfront and lack of awareness of the availability of fee loans from SAAS. That does a disservice to would-be students, discussed more here.




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