Thursday, August 11, 2005

Scottish universities target 'fees refugees'

Donald MacLeod:

Scottish universities, faced with a falling population at home, are to target students in England in the hope of picking up "fees refugees" when top-up fees are introduced south of the border next year.

A low birth rate in Scotland means a falling number of school leavers with no upturn in sight. This year the number of candidates taking Highers and Standard Grade - equivalent to GCSEs - fell, mainly due to declining numbers of pupils.

The number of students in S5 (17-year-olds) fell 0.6% but the number of 16-year-olds dropped by 2.4%.

This suggests that although Scottish exam results were better this year, the pressure on university places in Scotland during clearing, which starts with A-level results next week, will not be greater. Scots pupils did better, but there are fewer of them chasing places.

And although politicians in the Scottish Parliament have been quick to raise the spectre of universities being swamped by English students seeking to avoid top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year, some universities are seeing this as good way to preserve numbers and standards.

Students from England going to Scottish universities now pay £1,200 a year upfront; this is due to rise to £1,700, and more in the case of medicine. Scottish domiciled students pay a £2,000 contribution after graduating.

Scottish universities will market themselves as cheaper than England even with a four-year degree, and will also offer to take English students straight into the second year if they have good A-level grades.

At Dundee University, Gordon Craig, the admissions director, said: "We want the best students, and with the birth rate falling in Scotland, the last thing we want to do is to antagonise students from England.

"We are mounting a big initiative to encourage English students to come into the second year of degree programmes if they have 300 points [three Bs at A-level]," he added.

Dundee will also be offering 30 £1,000 bursaries for students taking "advanced entry" into the second year. There will be special academic support, and help to allow them to adjust socially so they don't feel left out of groups of students who already know each other, said Mr Craig.

At Stirling, Professor John Field, the deputy principal, predicts that falling numbers will pose a problem for Scottish universities.

Traditionally Stirling has taken a lot of students from Northern Ireland but the universities there are expanding and they also have the option of the Republic where tuition fees have been abolished.

"We will have to pay much more attention to English students," said Professor Field. "If there are bright working-class kids from families who have jobs and just get hit by fees, we would very much welcome that. We think it is good to have students from a variety of backgrounds, including different parts of the UK," he added.

Apart from promoting the university in England, including visits to schools, Stirling is seeking to raise its profile in the "new Europe" - that is, countries such as Poland and the Baltic states. "That is going to be an interesting area for us," added Professor Field.

Different regions of Scotland will be affected differently by demographic decline. Aberdeen University faces a particular problem because the population of the city, where it has always recruited strongly, is predicted to fall by 7.6% by 2008 and 22.6% by 2018.

"As a northern city dependent on the local population for students we are going to have to be even cleverer at marketing than we have been," said Clare Sender, head of admissions for Aberdeen University.

Her team has been undertaking detailed analysis of current students to try and identify students elsewhere in the UK who might be attracted to apply. The university is also looking to Europe, with marketing at exhibitions and school visits.

Of course, Scottish universities would not have to go through all this time, effort and expense to recruit students if the British government would just relocate their colonists in the north of Ireland to Scotland. Apparently, they would rather see Scotland suffer than bring an end to British colonial rule in the north of Ireland.


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