27/11/2012 02:16 GMT

Prince William's Former University Warns Of 'Challenges' In Broadening Access

A university has called for widespread effort to boost attainment levels among applicants from poorer backgrounds as it warned of the "considerable challenges" in broadening access.

Prince William's alma mater, the University of St Andrews - which has Scotland's toughest entry requirements - has been criticised for admitting just 14 students from the 20 most deprived Scottish areas in 2011, compared to an overall total of 482 Scottish students.

However, the university said this was because so few young people from these areas are achieving basic university entry grades.

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Prince William and Kate Middleton visit St Andrews

It said it faced a choice between significantly lowering academic entry standards to boost the number of students from deprived backgrounds, or deal with "continuing criticism for slow but steady progress".

From the general population, the university admits only one in every ten applicants, compared to one in four applicants from deprived areas.

St Andrews has pledged to increase the intake of students from the 20 most deprived areas by 45% in the coming year, alongside a range of other measures including increasing bursary support for Scottish students by £400,000.

Stephen Magee, vice-principal with responsibility for admissions at St Andrews, said: "We have a choice - we can continue to beat up our leading universities for failing to admit more kids from our most deprived areas, or we can start, without shame or blame, to ask if perhaps there is something going wrong throughout the whole equation.

"Our doors are open here in St Andrews. We have been doing contextualised admission for over seven years.

"We have comprehensive bursary, scholarship and personal support. We are out across the country in schools week in and week out doing our best to attract those with the most potential to come and study in Fife.

"This is not a question of any lack of commitment, will or investment in scholarships and bursaries on our part.

"We want Scotland's brightest here, regardless of background."

Mr Magee added: "We know that we could play the political game and change these figures overnight by lowering our entry grades, but experience tells us that we would simply be admitting these kids to fail, and that would be utterly dishonest.

"If as a nation, however, we continue to lay responsibility for widening access solely at the door of universities, the challenge will never be properly met.

"We believe it requires a concerted effort on health, employment, better housing and a stronger culture of attainment at all levels of Scottish education to equip young people with the grades they need to gain entry and to succeed at university."

Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, said St Andrews' target to increase students from deprived backgrounds was "minuscule".

He said: "It's welcome that St Andrews are accepting that they can do more, at least in part, by setting targets that will see some limited progress on widening access if met.

"However, while accepting the principle is welcome, their plans will see only an additional six students per year enter St Andrews University in practice. That's minuscule by any standard.

He added: "With hundreds of millions of pounds of additional public money going into universities in Scotland over the coming years, St Andrews, and others, need to aim much higher than this.

"Rather than telling us what they can't do, they should be more ambitious in what they can.

"We want to see universities setting ambitious local plans for widening access across Scotland and we want to see the Scottish Parliament legislate at the national level to ensure every institution prioritises widening access and makes progress in this area."