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A Third As Good?

Recently I received a Freedom of Information (FOI) response to a question I asked the Scottish government earlier in the year. Specifically, I was enquiring as to the composition of Scottish university Classics and Classical Studies courses, particularly with a view to the number of state/private alumni they accept.

The results did not stagger me.

Currently, three universities in Scotland (Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews) offer undergraduate degrees in these subjects.

The FOI returned confirmation of the domination of places by the private sector.

In Classical Studies, 135 students received a place in the academic year 2019/20, forty-five of which were state educated. That’s 33%.

When it came to Classics courses, there were 145 students placed, and the allocation to the state sector was, again, forty-five. That’s 31%.

While it may be true that Classical subjects are more likely to be offered in private schools than the state sector, and thus produce more applicants for these places, it is further confirmation of how out-of-whack the divide by state and private has become.

Remember, only a small minority of pupils in Scottish schools are privately educated (just 4% of all pupils), yet when it comes to Classics (at least 62%) and Classical Studies (at least 59%), the majority of places go to the private sector.

It is worth noting that in the academic year 2019/20, 230 state-school pupils sat Higher Classical Studies, while only 164 privately-educated pupils sat the SQA exam. More state-school pupils sat Higher Classical Studies than their private-school counterparts.

The problem here is that - as the FOI request puts it - “we don’t hold data on the qualifications studied by independent school pupils”, though it is widely understood that many private schools in Scotland choose to study A-Level Classical Subjects through examination boards in England and Wales.

Currently, we do not know how many private school pupils in Scotland sit A-Levels rather than Highers, so the data we have is incomplete. I am submitting today another FOI to UCAS to learn how many state/private applicants were received to these university courses in Scotland.

It is something of a coincidence that today I also received an email from a former pupil who has gone on to accept a place to study a non-Classical subject in Dundee.

Of all the pupils I have taught, there has been none – not one – who was better-suited to a Classical Studies course. She achieved an A1 at Higher (A1s in all her subjects, fyi), speaks fluent Italian and has a CV creaking with Classics-related content. Classics – over the last three years – has been her life. An extraordinary candidate.

She was rejected by one of these universities and I cannot accept that this was because she was somehow a lesser prospect to the university.

When she looked into the reasoning for her unsuccessful application, part of the message explained that, “The number of Home funded students we can admit is determined entirely and strictly capped by the Scottish Government. This cap means that we are obliged to reject candidates with outstanding academic qualifications.”

Put simply, universities are rejecting exceptional applications from Scottish school pupils because they do not generate the same revenue as non-UK applicants or applicants from the rest of the UK.

How might we adjust this imbalance?

First, private schools must disclose information about their grades and their pupil-destinations to the public, the same as any state-school.

Secondly, at the very least, state-school pupils must be offered 50% of the available places on these courses. It may be true that this risks refusing highly-talented private school candidates, but if you can’t hear the irony in this argument, you should maybe read this piece again.

Finally, we must revise the current caps on domestic students, and this will mean restructuring the economic model for our universities. When the ability to pay fees is more important to a university than quality of candidate, there is a deep rot in the system.

I’m spit-balling here, so feel free to make suggestions or criticisms in the comments below. What seems inarguable to me is that there is a two-fold disadvantage suffered by state-school classicists in Scotland: they are less likely to be offered the subject at school, and those that do receive disproportionately fewer places at university.

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Interesting. I teach at an independent school in Scotland that offers both A Leveks and Highers in 6th form, but have seen students rejected from Scottish universities as they have such limited places for domestic students who studied SQA (I’ve never had this happen with A Level students, but I assume it must also happen?).

I would be interested if these numbers are those studying classical subjects or those who originally applied for a classical subject. I attended Glasgow and probably wouldn’t have appeared in the stats as a Classics student till my 4th year - I took Classics as my 3rd subjectand decided I loved it more than English and Philosophy - it would never have occurred to me…

George Connor
George Connor
Jul 12, 2021
Replying to

We agree that the domestic quotas need to be reviewed - and the funding of HE along with it. It's hard to blame universities for restricting access for some pupils when they rely on overseas fees simply to pay their staff!

And you're right that the Scottish model allows different routes towards specialisation before graduation, but the essential point about numbers gaining access in first year remains.

Don't get us started on the SQA! They shut the door for a lot of state-school pupils by withdrawing Classical Greek. There is also an argument to be made re: UCAS. If, as you say, Higher is not enough to compete with A-Level, then UCAS are accepting a pretty fundamental - and privileging…

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