On BBC’s Question Time, Jo Swinson MP (Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire) made the following claim:
I represent a very middle class, affluent constituency and, in one of the towns, 80% of young children go on to university. Five or six miles down the road in Glasgow Govan, it’s 4%.
This article examines these claims about Scottish young people and their university attendance.
This is a pair of claims about the progression to university of Scottish young people. In the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2016 (SIMD16) data-set, there is an estimated proportion of young people (aged 17 to 21) who enrolled in a full-time first degree course. This is labelled ‘HESA’, and is part of the education indices.
The data-set breaks Scotland down into nearly 7,000 data zones, containing about 760 people each. For local data zones in Govan and Linthouse, Govanhill West and Govanhill East and Aikenhead, the average estimated proportion of 17 to 21-year olds enrolled was 4%.
However, Ms Swinson made a second claim, about students in East Dunbartonshire. Across the 130 local data zones in East Dunbartonshire, the average figure was 13%. In that local council area, the HESA measure ranged from 2% (in Hillhead-3) to 34% (in Barloch-2).
The SIMD16 data-set does not support the Liberal Democrat leadership candidate’s assertion. That figure of 80% was either incorrectly stated or using an incomparable measure of higher education enrolment.
Conceptually, the proportion of people aged 17 to 21 in a full-time (first) degree course is distinct from the proportion of school leavers reaching university within three months.
The Scottish government does publish national statistics on the initial destination of school leavers, by local authority. The definition of higher education in this report is wider than in the SIMD16 dataset:
Higher Education: includes leavers following HND (Higher National Diploma) or HNC (Higher National Certificate) courses, degree courses, courses for the education and training of teachers and higher level courses for professional qualifications. It includes programmes at a level higher than the standard of the National Qualifications, i.e. above SCQF Level 7. Leavers with a deferred, unconditional place in higher education have also been included in this category.
We find large geographical differences, and differences by deprivation. 65.1% of school leavers in East Dunbartonshire arrived in higher education, compared to 38.9% in Glasgow City.
Using the SIMD16 dataset, we can break Scotland into fifths by deprivation¹, finding that 25.7% of 2017/18 school leavers in the most deprived fifth were in higher education. For the least deprived fifth, that figure was 61.6%. The gap between these two sets of areas was 35.9 points.
The difference in higher education attendance has narrowed somewhat. In 2009/10 (using the SIMD09 deprivation segments), 17.5% of school leavers in the most deprived areas reached higher education. That figure was compared to 57.0% in the least deprived areas — a difference of 39.4 points.
UCAS is an alternate data source. However, UCAS does not cover a substantial amount of higher education provision, mostly done through full-time higher education provided by further education colleges.
Experimental statistics from UCAS found large variation in 2016 university enrolment across Scotland, by parliamentary constituencies. In East Dunbartonshire, the 18 year-old entry rate was 46%. The constituencies of Glasgow had UCAS entry rates between 15% and 20%.
There are large differences in higher education attendance by geography and deprivation in Scotland. That underlying point must be supported by accurate statistics, to avoid inadvertently misleading the public.
Politicians should ensure comparable measures are cited, data sources are provided, and correct any errors when pointed out.
¹Note: This report and other Scottish government documents wrongly uses ‘quintile’ to describe the five bands or intervals. The quintile is the value at the boundary of each those five intervals (that is: at 20%, 40%, 60% and 80%).