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.


Good progress has been made towards fair access in higher education. Although it built on longer-term trends towards widening participation, the report of the COWA in 2016 (and the Scottish Government's decision to implement its recommendations, especially the suggested targets) appear to have energised and accelerated this process. As I have already said, political leadership has been crucial. But many others deserve credit - other national agencies such as the SFC, national organisations such as Universities Scotland, Colleges Scotland and NUS Scotland and, in particular, the institutions themselves. It has been a whole-system effort, and a whole-system achievement.

However, again as I have emphasised at several points in this report, much remains to be done. Complacency and disengagement are always risks, and the difficulties that lie ahead should not be underestimated. I have made a number of detailed recommendations - for example, on MERs and articulation. I have also attempted to address some difficult, and controversial, topics notably the choice between emphasising community deprivation and individual disadvantage, the long-standing debate about the use of SIMD, and the relationship between schools and universities (in particular, the impact of the attainment gap on fair access). It is important to work hard on these detailed topics, and to have these difficult debates.

Even more important is the need to think about fair access in a fundamentally different way. Still in Scotland, as in nearly every other country, fair access is conceived of in terms of deficit. It is seen in terms of carefully controlled compensation for the educational disadvantage of young learners from more deprived backgrounds. It is generally accepted that this will require lower standards. The debate is essentially about how much decline is acceptable without compromising overall academic quality and without setting students up to drop out or to fail. Instead, fair access must be seen in terms of asset - the positive qualities that students from more challenging social backgrounds bring to higher education (for example, determination and resilience) but also the positive benefits that institutions derive from having a wider, and more democratic base, with potentially transformative impacts on learning and teaching and on research (choice of topics, methodologies and channels of distribution). Above all, the case for fair access to higher education must be firmly located within a wider commitment to social justice and the vision of a 'good society' from which all ultimately benefit, the privileged as much as the deprived.



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