A Blueprint for Fairness: Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access

A Blueprint for Fairness presents a system wide plan to achieve equal access to higher education.

Chapter 1: A Whole System Approach

In our interim report we concluded that socioeconomic inequality in higher education is an issue which spans the whole education system and beyond into wider social policy. Yet this Commission is the first body to have undertaken a holistic, strategic review of the issue and the contribution that can be made by each part of the system to its resolution.

This systemic approach should be evident throughout our report. In Chapter 2 we discuss how the joins between different parts of the system can be enhanced to provide better access pathways into higher education. In Chapter 3 we take a system wide view of how best to support and develop learners from the early years through to graduation and in Chapter 4 we discuss better sharing and use of data across all education sectors.

A Commissioner for Fair Access

In this opening Chapter we discuss how the system can come together to deliver a better, more coordinated and effective package of programmes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But first we make the case for someone to lead and maintain this systemic approach in the coming years to drive this agenda on fairness forward at the pace we desire.

Despite our conclusion that access is a whole system problem, the debate on equal access often centres on what more universities can do, with the primary strategic responsibilities for access resting with the Scottish Funding Council ( SFC).

We believe these arrangements are insufficient. The SFC has jurisdiction only over post-16 education bodies, with no locus over the many other parts of the system with vital roles to play. This makes it difficult to ensure that the responsibility for driving progress is shared right across the education system. Moreover, as one of the key contributors to access policy and principal funders of access programmes, we believe that the SFC, as well as the Scottish Government, should themselves be held to account for progress.

This lack of strategic overview is also at the root of several of the most important themes identified in our interim report, including the lack of conclusive research evidence in a number of key areas and the lack of coherence and coordination of access activity within and across sectors.

For these reasons we believe it is important that this strategic void be filled by an individual, reporting to Scottish Ministers, with the authority to hold all parts of the system, including policymakers, to account for progress. We would also expect such an individual to take a leadership role in advancing equal access, for example through working with others to provide impartial, evidence based policy advice and to support the development of a stronger evidence base through the commissioning and publication of independent research.

We want to avoid any duplication or additional layers of bureaucracy which place pressure on already scarce resources. This role is about advocacy and the strategic leadership necessary to bring together all parts of the system to support fair access. We envisage that this could be achieved by a single Commissioner for Fair Access supported by a small number of staff. The position could perhaps be established through a process similar to that of the appointment of the Children and Young People's Commissioner. However there are various models of how this might be achieved and we see no need to be overly prescriptive. We believe that a Commissioner for Fair Access is critical to drive progress in the initial years, at the very least, of this programme of work.

Recommendation 1: The Scottish Government should appoint a Commissioner for Fair Access by the end of 2016 to:

  • lead cohesive and system wide efforts to drive fair access in Scotland; acting as an advocate for access for disadvantaged learners and holding to account those with a role to play in achieving equal access.
  • coordinate and prioritise the development of a more substantial evidence base on the issues most pertinent to fair access, including the commissioning and publication of independent research. The Scottish Government should ensure an appropriate annual budget is made available to support this work.
  • publish, annually, a report to Ministers outlining the Commissioner's views on progress towards equal access in Scotland to inform development of effective policy at national, regional and institutional level.

Developing and Improving Access Activity

The commitment of universities to widening access is strong. Every institution in Scotland has developed its own bespoke portfolio of programmes and initiatives, in which they invest considerable energy and resource.

There is therefore no shortage of provision for learners. Instead, the problems identified in our previous report are the need for a more coordinated delivery of programmes across the entire education system and robust, quantitative evidence on what works.

Identifying and sharing good practice

The lack of robust, quantitative, research based evidence on the success of access programmes is a particularly frustrating problem. It is presently almost impossible to judge with precision which programmes deliver meaningful impact, and consequently, where best to target the substantial public and institutional resource that is invested in access.

Yet the solution is straightforward. At the heart of all access programmes should be rigorous arrangements for monitoring and evaluation, based on sound research methodology. Over time, sharing the robust data yielded from these processes across the whole education system will contribute to the development of a more substantial and reliable national evidence base.

As this evidence base takes shape, the Commissioner for Fair Access should take the lead in the development and publication of a Scottish Framework for Fair Access - a good practice guide for Scotland. This Framework should draw upon the emerging evidence to define the specific interventions and learning components which deliver most impact at each stage of the educational journey. The Framework should develop and evolve as we acquire a more sophisticated understanding of the interventions that have most impact. Our recommendations to improve data and processes to track and monitor individuals will also support this understanding. We propose that the first iteration of this framework should be published in 2018.

The Framework should come to be regarded as an authoritative, evidence based guide to best practice. In line with this, public funding for access should increasingly be focussed on programmes which are consistent with the Framework.

We are clear that the Framework should not inhibit innovation. Experimentation and creativity are to be encouraged and will play a crucial role in identifying new, more effective delivery models. However, where new approaches are being introduced, we would expect that they first be tested on a pilot basis, with programmes being rigorously evaluated before being rolled out on a larger scale.

Recommendation 2: By 2018, the Commissioner for Fair Access, working with experts, should publish a Scottish Framework for Fair Access. This authoritative, evidence based framework should identify the most impactful forms of access activity at each stage of the learner journey, from early learning through to higher education and provide best practice guidelines on its delivery and evaluation.

Recommendation 3: Public funding for access programmes - either through specific external funding or funding from core budgets - should focus on programmes that are consistent with the Scottish Framework for Fair Access.

Coordinating the delivery of what works

If we are to achieve the step change necessary to secure fair access then a better understanding and recognition of what works is essential. But so too is coherent delivery of the most impactful interventions to ensure that disadvantaged learners receive the right support at the right time. Better coordination in the delivery of access programmes is also essential if we are to remove duplication, make best use of resources and simplify the somewhat cluttered, confusing landscape that exists at present.

We have heard of instances where 12 separate initiatives, delivered by multiple providers but each with similar objectives, were being offered to a single secondary school. This illustrates the clutter - from the school's perspective - but also the duplication that can make it hard for learners, and their advisers, to navigate their way through the system.

We have seen a number of good examples of coordinated activity across sectors, for example between a single university, a college and local schools but fewer examples of coordination within sectors, where, for example, a group of universities have come together to deliver a coherent offer across a region.

It is therefore crucial that those planning and delivering programmes, especially those operating primarily within the same region, work together and across the education system to provide a package of support that is clear, coordinated and comprehensive, providing access to the most impactful forms of activity at each stage of the learner journey. To maximise effectiveness, schools must play a central role in planning provision, articulating the specific needs of their young people rather than simply acting, or being seen, purely as the recipients of access activity.

At the same time, a more regional approach to coordination and delivery of programmes should not preclude learners accessing higher education anywhere in Scotland and it is therefore essential that institutions across Scotland recognise and give due weight to participation in programmes, like summer schools, delivered in other parts of the country.

Recommendation 4: Universities, colleges, local authorities, schools, the SFC funded access programmes and early years providers should work together to deliver a coordinated approach to access which removes duplication and provides a coherent and comprehensive offer to learners. This should include:

  • the development of mechanisms by which access programmes undertaken at one institution, or in one part of the country, can be recognised by other institutions, while also serving institutional and local needs. Credit rating programmes on the Scottish Credit and Qualification Framework ( SCQF) should be considered where appropriate.

The contribution of other funders

In addition to the resources being invested in access by the SFC, Scottish Government and institutions, Scotland is also in the fortunate position of benefitting from a number of charitable and private funders, such as the Robertson Trust, Sutton Trust and MCR Pathways who have a passionate commitment to supporting social mobility through fair access to higher education.

Charitable, private and philanthropic funders contribute in a range of ways: for example by funding scholarships and bursaries, facilitating work experience and internship opportunities, and supporting graduates to successfully enter the labour market. We have consistently been impressed not just with their generosity of commitment but particularly with the significant expertise they have accumulated through working directly and often in new ways with people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is therefore important that the wider system harnesses this expertise and that the distinctive and powerful contribution of these funders is recognised in progressing fair access.

We are also keen that these funders, like all sectors and organisations with key roles to play, should seek both to maximise the impact of their existing interventions and to contribute to our shared understanding of the activities and programmes that deliver most benefit. There is no doubt that these funders can inform the Scottish Framework for Fair Access ( Recommendation 2) and make a valuable contribution to a coherent offer for learners ( Recommendation 4).


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