Commissioner for Fair Access annual report 2019: building on progress towards fair access

Second annual report from Commissioner for Fair Access, in which he assesses the progress on fair access in Scotland.


My first annual report aimed to cover most aspects of fair access to higher education, although it did not cover student financial support which was being considered by a separate review. It was an attempt to set the scene. Despite that it was not comprehensive. There were some important gaps.

One was consideration of other forms of disadvantage apart from socio-economic deprivation. A modest start to fill that gap has been made with the publication earlier this year of a discussion paper on disabled students, who have received increased public attention over the past few months. There are other potentially disadvantaged groups - including women (who, although they now form a majority of students, are still underrepresented in certain subjects); ethnic and cultural minorities; and older students. The last group are especially important. Opportunities for adult education must be improved if intergenerational unfairness is to be mitigated and the 'lifelong learning' agenda revived.

It is also necessary to look beyond access to first degree courses, which is why another discussion document on postgraduate students is planned. Increasingly, access to some jobs requires a postgraduate qualification. More generally, some experience of postgraduate study is now an important element in the expectations and life experience of a growing number of young people. Those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, therefore, deserve to be given fair access to postgraduate study.

The second gap was some discussion of the interplay between reforms in primary and, in particular, secondary education - such as the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) - and policy to promote fairer access to higher education. In addition to the CfE, important work has been undertaken on the learner journey covering the later years of secondary education, further and higher education, and training and employment. Parallel work has also been undertaken on developing the young workforce. My remit as Commissioner does not extend to schools. But it is a truism, and a truth, that the seeds of unequal access to higher education are sown very early in life - at the pre-school stage - and then reinforced by subsequent school experience. Much of the practical work undertaken by universities to promote fair access is focused on outreach to, and partnership with, schools. At the level of national policy a minimum requirement is that school (and workforce) and higher education initiatives are properly coordinated.

Having said that, schools cannot be reduced to simply providing a 'supply chain' for universities. Some 17 and 18 year-olds follow other pathways - and rightly so. University, in particular, is not for everyone - although my personal belief is that many more can and should benefit from a university education (provided universities adapt what they offer - and, crucially, how that offer is delivered). Potentially therefore there can be a tension between school reforms designed to offer better opportunities to all pupils and the narrower, and inevitably more academic, requirements of universities even when they are aiming to promote fairer access. To address this potential tension in a positive way it is important to conceive of higher education, all forms of further education and training, and increasingly employment-based learning and self study through online platforms as a holistic tertiary education system in which policies are coordinated and barriers removed. This was a theme of my first annual report. The principle should apply across all age groups with second, third and more chances freely available for older learners, a subject to which I intend to return.

After a summary of key messages and recommendations this report is divided into four chapters:

1. A review of progress, both 'hard' (i.e. progress towards meeting targets for fair access expressed in statistics) and 'soft' (policy development in three key areas: the Framework for Fair Access and bridging programmes; contextual admissions and minimum entry requirements; and articulation);

2. A discussion of the choice between using area-based metrics such as the SIMD or more individual-level indicators to measure progress towards fair access. Currently, of course, national targets and the institutional targets derived from them are expressed in terms of SIMD. This is more than a technical discussion about the best 'means' for achieving fair access; it also touches on 'ends', the fundamental goals of fair access;

3. The interplay between primary and secondary school reforms, and also other policy initiatives, and efforts to achieve fair access;

4. A number of separate but related issues, including the impact of the UK's exit from the European Union (when, and if, it happens) and the influence of any recommendations on student fees and funding made by the Augar committee in England.

This report will not cover some other important topics, such as the development of contextual admissions and of minimum entry standards which are only briefly mentioned in the first section, the progress report. Partly this is because it was covered in my first annual report in some detail; partly because that work is well in hand; and partly because it is too early for a considered evaluation of the impact of contextual admissions and entry standards on the ground, again a subject to which I intend to return. Nor have I yet had an opportunity properly to consider what changes in student financial support would best advance fair access.



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