Alex Massie

Is Edinburgh University Scotland’s latest disgrace?

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Imagine if Durham University were to decide that for courses heavily over-subscribed with qualified applicants it would reserve a small percentage of places for would-be students hailing from within 50 miles* of the university. Would anyone raise an eyebrow? I doubt it.

Yet when Edinburgh University adopts precisely this approach - for some of the humanities and, I suspect, medicine - suddenly there are hysterical cries of "racism" and "xenophobia". Tom Harris MP** [see update]  says this is "shameful" and goes so far as to label the university "an embarrassment to Scotland".

What piffle. It's not the university that is obsessing about politics or the border here, it's the likes of Harris who, I suspect, worries that the university is demonstrating some kind of nationalist prejudice. That seems to be what Rachael Jolley at Next Left thinks too, labelling this policy "Little Scotlandism". This seems absurd, not least because more than 40% of UK-based undergraduates at Edinburgh are from south of the border. Some prejudice! Some xenophobia!

Harris also complains that English students are "already discriminated against" since it's more expensive for them to attend a Scottish university than it is for native Scots. Well, I'm in favour of top-up fees too but this is small beer. It's no more unreasonable than the fact it's more expensive to attend the University of Michigan if you're from Virginia than if you are from Michigan. Pretty much every public university in America "discriminates" in this fashion.

In any case, all (good) universities discriminate in their admissions policies. All you're arguing about are the grounds for that discrimination. Like any other leading university Edinburgh could fill most of its courses twice over. It's very easy to say "well just pick the best applicants" but determining who is the best applicant is hard enough when you're simply measuring exam results and even harder if you want to bring academic potential into the equation. So it's a lottery or a matter of guess-work or something else.

In any case, if it's a question of picking the best applicants then nationality of applicant shouldn't matter at all. But I suspect plenty of people would be unhappy if, say, every place on a given course was taken up by Chinese students and would be unhappy even if they were, to a student, the "best" applicants. So most people are, I hazard, happy with a degree of geographically-based discrimination; they simply differ on where to draw the line. 

For some courses at Edinburgh a lottery, given the numbers of applicants, could easily result in no local students being admitted for a given subject, even though they'd meet admissions standards. Preventing that from happening does not seem so very shameful and, again, given that nearly half the undergraduate population is English it cannot be said that this policy, which has existed for a number of years now, has seriously inconvenienced, say, Etonians or Harrovians wishing to study at Edinburgh. (I'd also suggest that the University can probably be more confident that a local applicant will accept their offer than might be the case with some applicants from further afield for whom Edinburgh might be more likely to be their second choice.)

As I say, I doubt there'd be any outcry if Durham or Manchester or Bristol had comparable policies. But because this is a Scottish university suddenly it's controversial and a political matter. If there are double standards at work here they're being applied by Edinburgh's critics just as surely as they may or may not be by the university itself.

*This is what Edinburgh does. In the first instance it favours applicants from the Lothians, Fife, the Borders and Clackmannan. Then applicants from within the rest of Scotland and the north of England receive a slight preference. This is hardly the same as denying applicants from southern England the opportunity to study at Edinburgh.

PS: Would I be outraged if Oxford afforded a measure of priority for applicants from Oxfordshire? No I would not. Anyway, neither Oxford nor Cambridge permit their admissions to be dictated purely by measurable academic achievement and this too is, I think, reasonable enough. (For that matter, you won't have to search too hard to discover Scottish applicants to Oxbridge who have been asked at interview, "What is a Higher?" - a question that suggests not all admissions staff have always been au fait with the different education systems in these islands.)

**UPDATE: Tom Harris has changed his mind and thinks his original post was somewhat intemperate and mistaken. Good for him to do so publicly. Hats to be doffed etc etc.

Also: To respond to SarahAB in the comments - Edinburgh has had this policy in place for half a dozen years and there has been no decline in the number of English-based students studying in the capital. Really there is no nefarious plot to rid the university of English students.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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