Do Scottish universities exclude the poor?

Scotland should do more to encourage people from poorer backgrounds to go to university, according to the National Union of Students Scotland (NUSS).
The Scotsman (13 February) reporting the NUSS's call, says that Scotland has the worst record in the UK for recruiting school-leavers from poor backgrounds, and also lags England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the proportion of students coming from state schools.
The NUSS wants targets to be set for universities, though it is reluctant to call them quotas. Universities should be penalised financially for failing to meet these targets. “Watchdog needed to ensure university access for the poor” is The Scotsman’s headline.
But are the figures right? Measuring the proportion of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds is notoriously difficult, and comparing between two countries that use different methods for doing it is more difficult still.
The Scotsman reports that only 28.2 per cent of Scottish students come from the lower socio-economic groups (4-7) against the UK average of 33.2 per cent. This may be a misprint, as the data source appears to be the Higher Education Statistics Agency and its 2008-09 returns show that the UK average is 32.3 per cent from groups 4-7 (not 33.2) – a gap of 4.1 percentage points against The Scotsman’s 5.0 points.
There are several major problems with this comparison. The most obvious one is the denominator. Of those doing degree courses at Scottish universities, around a quarter (sources differ slightly) are from England or abroad. It is probably safe to assume that relatively few English students from poor homes would chose to go to Scotland to study – most choose institutions close to home for financial reasons.
Prince William and his fiancé Kate Middleton met at St Andrews University, which submitted no data on the socioeconomic profile of its students for 2008-09. If it had, it is unlikely to have improved the Scottish position, since St Andrews is an “ancient” university, in the curious parlance used in Scotland, and like England’s oldest universities, this group admits the lowest proportion of students from poorer backgrounds. In 2007-08, 13.1 per cent of St Andrews’ students were from social classes 4-7, the lowest figure recorded by any Scottish University.
One curiosity of the data is the sharp rise recorded between 2007-08 and 2008-09. England increased from 29.4 per cent to 32.4, and Scotland from 26.3 to 28.2. These are big changes for a single year, adding further caution to the comparisons made by NUSS and The Scotsman.
The reason may be data quality. The HESA data come from UCAS application forms, which are often incomplete. A report by the National Audit Office in 2008 said that over one third of full-time students have missing socio-economic data. Among full-time students, about 20 per cent of the data is missing: among part-time students, who do not apply through UCAS, 93 per cent is missing.
In the most recent return, HESA records 355,615 full-time first degree entrants to UK universities, but has data on only 219,290 of them (62 per cent). Those least likely to provide the data are those from the lower social groups. So it may be that overall participation by these groups is higher than the statistics suggest, both in England and Scotland.
The two countries also measure participation in higher education differently. Scotland still uses the Age Participation Index, abandoned in England in 1999 in favour of the Initial Entry Rate, which later evolved into a more sophisticated measure, the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR). Scotland does produce a breakdown of participation in higher education that compares the chances of those in deprived areas against the rest, but there is no directly comparable measure in England.
Comparisons based on the HESA data appear to be the only ones available. But this measures the rate of participation by young people, largely missing those who go to university later in life. Those students tend to come from poorer backgrounds, and may study part-time. They elude counting by HESA, further confusing an already confused picture.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England remarked in 1996: “Data on the socio-economic profile of the HE population have consistently been poor, difficult to collect and full of caveats. There is no simple way to draw a conclusive picture on this subject, especially as no relevant national data on students over 21 exists.” In England the HEIPR has improved matters, but it is not used in Scotland.  
Given all these question marks, I doubt whether the difference between England and Scotland in participation in higher education by students from poorer backgrounds is really significant. Both could do better, no doubt.