No one dissents - in public at any rate - from the fair access target of achieving a level playing field in admissions to higher education by 2030. It is common ground that it is right and just that 20 per cent of entrants should come from the 20 per cent most socially deprived areas in Scotland.
But how far should that principle be pressed? Should there be a level playing field in continuation rates, in the proportion of 'good' degrees, in graduate-level or professional jobs between students from the most to the least deprived areas, as measured by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD)?
Again there is a solid consensus that fair access has to be about more than access; it is also about success. As a former Minister put it, it has to be to 'the graduation ceremony not just the freshers' fair'. No responsible person wants to set up students to fail. Of course, two, rather different, conclusions can be drawn from that common position - either we should be cautious in the first place about admitting students who may not be adequately prepared for university study; or we need to take bolder action both to support them to succeed and to challenge unjustified barriers to their success.
This discussion paper focuses on postgraduate education, where the same question arises. If we are serious about fair access, do we need to include access to postgraduate courses as well as first degrees? Once perhaps it might have been reasonable to exclude postgraduate education because for the great majority of students a first degree was the end of their university education. But this is no longer the case for a growing proportion of graduates, even though Scotland has four-year courses. Also postgraduate study is generally needed for entry into many key professions, for example law. If the aim is to promote greater social equity in access to higher education, outcomes as well as opportunities, postgraduate courses are increasingly important.
This paper offers, and analyses, the available data on postgraduate admissions. Its headline findings are:
- Students from the most socially deprived areas are significantly less likely to continue on to postgraduate courses than their most socially advantaged peers;
- The gap is explained, partly although not wholly, by the fact they are more likely to have studied subjects at first-degree level in which fewer students overall progress to postgraduate courses - although this begs the question of why they are underrepresented in higher-status subjects where postgraduate progression rates are higher;
- The gap is also explained, partly but again not wholly, by the fact that more socially deprived students are concentrated in universities with lower postgraduate progression rates - although, again, this begs the question of why they are underrepresented in more prestigious institutions, notably the ancient universities, where many more students continue on to postgraduate courses;
- Finally, even the students from more socially deprived backgrounds who do progress to postgraduate study are still significantly less likely to get professional jobs six months after leaving, which suggests that they continue to suffer perhaps silent but nevertheless powerful discrimination.
These, unsurprising but disturbing, findings suggest to me that there is a very strong case for including access to postgraduate education within the wider framework of fair access - first, because postgraduate courses are often the key to professional jobs and careers; and, secondly, because the main explanations of unequal postgraduate progression rates highlight the wider issues that affect fair access at first-degree level as well (such as the underrepresentation of more socially deprived students in more prestigious academic subjects and in higher-status universities).
Both are important in terms of producing fairer access to postgraduate education. The very important differences in the social base of the student body across universities are well known, which is why the most selective (and prestigious) universities with high rates of progression to postgraduate study have a particular responsibility to address fair access over-and-above the sector-level drive. Also early indications have shown that much of the recent increase in SIMD20 entrants has been in subjects such as business administration and subjects allied to medicine, which have low progression rates to postgraduate study. So, unless there is a more even spread of socially disadvantaged students across a range of subjects, including those with high progression rates, inequity in access to postgraduate education will persist.
So what action needs to be taken? Clearly it is important that any fair access and participation targets included in outcome agreements between universities and the Scottish Funding Council should be extended to cover entry to postgraduate courses. Perhaps Universities Scotland also needs to consider adding to its excellent work on contextual admissions and minimum entry requirements, articulation and bridging programmes a fourth strand, on fair access to postgraduate education.
More controversially, new targets - national and institutional - could be developed to measure progress towards greater equity in postgraduate admissions. National targets at the level of subjects as well as individual institutions may be a bridge-too-far. But institutions could, and should, set subject-by-subject targets for the recruitment of disadvantaged students at postgraduate as well undergraduate level.
The key must be to start a serious conversation about fair access to postgraduate education. Even if there is a level playing field for initial entrants, issues of fair access to postgraduate study will remain. The lesson is fair access never really ends - not at the undergraduate entry gate or the first-degree finishing line; not even with an equal chance of getting a good Bachelor's degree (and so a professional career); but with the same opportunity to move on to postgraduate study (and equal access to lifelong learning).
Professor Sir Peter Scott
Commissioner for Fair Access