Summary and Key Messages
- Good progress has been made to meeting the 2021 interim targets for fair access, and the goal of achieving a level playing field for all applicants irrespective of social circumstances now looks achievable. The improved performance since 2016 is the vindication of the use of national targets recommended by the Commission on Widening Access (CoWA).
- Scotland is now setting the pace in the UK in terms of widening participation, with more rapid improvement in the opportunities for young people from socially deprived backgrounds to go to university than any other UK nation.
- The distribution of students from socially deprived backgrounds between colleges and universities, between different types of universities and between individual universities is still very uneven. Although a uniform distribution is impossible (and perhaps undesirable), fair access should be a core part of the mission of every institution.
- A national framework for outreach, access and bridging programmes should be established as soon as possible, to increase their transparency and transferability. The recently established Framework for Fair Access is a model of how greater national coherence can be achieved without unduly undermining institutional autonomy.
- The establishment of minimum entry requirements (MERs) by all universities is a big step forward towards fair access. But their impact should be carefully monitored and more adventurous use should be made of them as confidence among university staff builds.
- Progress on articulation has been disappointing. Too many applicants with Higher Nationals (HNs) are being denied the credit to which they are entitled. This is particularly frustrating at a time when new types of qualification, particularly in work-based learning, are becoming increasingly significant, even if students on Foundation and Graduate Apprenticeships are still comparatively small. A step change in university practice - and attitudes - is needed.
- The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) should remain the core metric for assessing progress towards fair access despite its regional limitations, although registration for free school meals (FSMs) should be used in combination with SIMD both to target support and to measure progress towards fair access going forward. Universities not only need to compensate for individual disadvantage but also have a responsibility to address community deprivation.
- There is little evidence that the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has disadvantaged potential university applicants from deprived social backgrounds, despite the persistence of the attainment gap between young learners and between schools. The broadening of experiences, which is the aim of CfE, should prepare young learners well for independent study at university.
- The confused relationships between Advanced Highers, Higher Nationals (HNs) and the early years of degrees need to be addressed. If no action is taken, actual overlaps may be emphasised rather than potential synergies.
- There is little evidence that less deprived applicants are being displaced by applicants from the most deprived backgrounds despite the strong perception this is a major problem, although distressing individual cases have no doubt occurred. Fair access is about redressing past inequalities of opportunity (and should be compared with equivalent campaigns to address gender or race discrimination).
- The policy environment is becoming increasingly volatile, unstable and unpredictable. Brexit is only the most stark, and immediate, example. If universities are to argue successfully that existing budgets, and funded places, should be maintained, their commitment to (and action on) fair access will be key.
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