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FMQs: 10% that’s not 10%

June 9, 2016

In a discussion of some new figures out today from UCAS (full of interesting things and worth their own separate piece), the First Minister reportedly said earlier (according to the BBC):

The more fundamental point is that not everyone who goes to university goes at 18, so when you look at the figures for people of all ages, the numbers from the most deprived areas both applying to and being accepted to university is up in 2015 compared to 2014, in both cases by about 10%.
This is a problematic representation of the figures. Back in January 2015, discussing the emerging application numbers for 2015, in its “Notes to Editors”  the Scottish Government’s commendably clear and accurate  press notice   explained that:
Today’s UCAS publication suggests a 10 per cent rise in Scots-domiciled applications. However, much of the rise is due to the inclusion of teacher training courses at Scottish universities in the UCAS undergraduate scheme for the first time this year. The comparable year-on-year figure is a rise of one per cent as per the figures noted above.
The UCAS End of Cycle Report 2015, published after the whole process was complete, added at page 26:
In 2014, there were fewer late acceptances to Scotland recorded in the UCAS data for some Scottish providers, meaning that comparing acceptances with 2014 may not give an accurate measure of change. Also, a large set of teacher training courses at providers in Scotland were recruited through the UCAS Undergraduate scheme for the first time in 2015, having previously been recruited through UCAS Teacher Training. These two factors are estimated to account for around 3,800 of the 4,400 increase in acceptances to providers in Scotland in 2015 compared with 2014.

The UCAS figures above turn a reported 10.4% increase in acceptances into one of 1.4%.

Today’s  UCAS figures show  at age 18 a fall of 3% in the numbers applying in SIMD1 (most deprived 20%) and a rise in the other 4 quintiles. Acceptances have fallen by 7% for 18 year olds from the most deprived 20% [correction to earlier version, which said they were down for all quintiles – they are up for the other 4]. The number of 18 year olds in Scotland will have fallen by around 1.6% over the period, by way of important context.

But there are increases in applicants and acceptances across all of the SIMD groups when all ages are taken into account.  The teacher training and late acceptance issues identified by UCAS are disproportionately relevant to older groups. It is beyond reasonable doubt that the large increases seen in the all-age data, in all groups, will be driven heavily  by these data issues, and not by real change on the ground.

To suggest therefore that there was a 10% increase in 2015 in the numbers applying and accepted from the most deprived backgrounds, once all ages are taken into account,  gives a misleading impression.  The like-for-like story, even once all ages are taken into account, will be quite different.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell on a quick check , UCAS has not repeated its warning about 2014 to 2015 comparability for Scotland in its latest publication – yet it’s a very significant point, and at least as relevant as some other comparability issues UCAS flags up. It looks possible that whoever constructed the FM’s brief may have come a cropper over this.

It’s my guess  therefore that the arcane-sounding, but fundamentally important, issues affecting data comparability may not have been drawn to the FM’s attention. But someone really should now, and to the Parliament and media, before this reading of the data acquires any currency. Because the last thing we need is reasons to downplay challenging numbers, when they are more likely than not to be telling us something important.

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