Fair Access Commissioner addresses Leadership Foundation

Speech by Commissioner for Fair Access, Professor Sir Peter Scott, to the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education: Governor Development Programme.


1. Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to this event today. My topic - inevitably - is the 'Fair Access Agenda' because my credentials for speaking to you are that I am the Commissioner for Fair Access here in Scotland. Because I will recently produced my first annual report to the Scottish Government I will base most of what I am about to say on that report - although it was a fairly comprehensive report so I will not be able to cover all the conclusions I reached and recommendations I made. So I would like to cover three main topics:

  • The first is to act as a devil's advocate and ask why we need a Commissioner for Fair Access? Everyone is much too polite to ask this question - so I will ask it myself. And I will focus on two particular aspects - university autonomy and Government targets, and the wider perils of the 'performance culture':

  • Second, I would like to highlight some of the key points I make in my report - the progress that has been made so far and prospects for future progress; some specific areas for action; and the most important recommendations I made:

  • Finally, I would like to focus on one particular idea in my report - that we need to think in terms of a 'covenant' (a word, of course, that has particular historical resonance here in Scotland) between universities and the nation, which goes far beyond fair access. My argument will be that, in the age of Donald Trump and Brexit, of 'fake news' and the rise of so-called 'populism', we need such a covenant more than ever before.

The case for a Commissioner

Institutional autonomy

2. Let me start, therefore, by acting as a devil's advocate. What is the justification for having a Commissioner for Fair Access? As Commissioner I have no regulatory powers, or any powers beyond making an annual report to the Government - unlike the Director for Fair Access in England who is now firmly located in the new Office for Students with lots of regulatory powers, and every university is required to have an approved access agreement before it can charge higher fees. Scotland, of course, has preserved a more traditional arrangement for the national governance of higher education, with the Scottish Funding Council still acting more like a buffer body between universities and the State.

3. But the very existence of a Commissioner for Fair Access can still be seen as a potential threat to the autonomy of universities (colleges, of course, have never enjoyed the same autonomy). So how do I answer the charge..?

  • My first answer is that I too believe in the importance of institutional autonomy - for both practical reasons (because institutions are far more likely to make sensible decisions about their future strategies than politicians or civil servants [or Commissioners!] and, crucially, are best placed to manage their 'business'); but also for principled reasons (because in an open and democratic society it is essential to guard the autonomy of what are usually described as 'civil society' institutions - which certainly include universities, because of their role in critical enquiry and academic freedom, but also include local government, trade unions and so on).

  • But my second answer is that, precisely because we are privileged to live in a democracy, no autonomy can be absolute. Just as companies must now place increasing focus on 'corporate responsibility', so universities must never forget their responsibilities as essentially public institutions (whatever the source of their funding) and focus too much on their quest to become globally competitive 'knowledge businesses'. I see my role as Commissioner as a facilitator of that essential public engagement between universities and their diverse communities (a word I very much prefer to the ubiquitous 'stake-holders'). I will talk later about the idea of a 'covenant'. All I will say now is that it is all too easy for universities to lose public confidence, as there are alarming signs they are doing in England in a backlash against high fees, value-for-money, graduate debt - and, maybe, vice-chancellors' salaries.

4. So I believe the way my role as Commissioner for Fair Access has been established strikes a good balance. I am independent of the Government (so I am free to say what I think); I am not located in the Funding Council (so I have no leverage over funding); and, as I have said, I have no regulatory powers (instead, I hope, I can be a 'critical friend' of the colleges and universities). But, of course, 'he would say that, wouldn't he..'

Targets - and SIMD

5. There is a second issue I would like to pick up while I am still in 'devil's advocate' mode. As you know, the Government has set targets for fair access with the ultimate objective of producing a completely level playing-field - in other words, applicants from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland should have exactly the same chance of getting into higher education as those from the 20 per cent least deprived areas. And this target has to be met by 2030 - only 12 years from now. In addition there are interim targets and targets for each institution.

6. There are lots of issues about targets - and, more generally, the potential negative effects of a 'performance culture' (After all we are told we now live in an 'audit society'). There are risks that too much emphasis is placed on things that can be easily quantified at the expense of other things, more difficult to quantify but often more important. If something isn't covered by a target, it may - unintentionally but automatically - get sidelined. There are also risks of 'teaching to the test' - although, as has been shown in the current controversy about the Curriculum for Excellence in Scottish schools, there are also problems if there is no test. But targets, in some forms, and performance indicators are inescapable. How could you manage a university without decent management information? The same goes for a national system of higher education. The key is the choice of PIs.

7. Here, of course, you encounter another complaint about fair access targets - that the metric used in the targets is the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). As with all area-based metrics (even though SIMD is a fairly fine-grain one), it cannot be exact - there will inevitably be false-positives, rich people living in poor areas, and false-negatives, poor people living in rich areas). This is particularly the case in more thinly populated areas like the north east and the Highlands and Islands. In reply to these criticisms I would like to make three simple points:

  • First, it would be great to have a reliable and robust metric that directly measured individual deprivation. There are some - care experience or free school meals. But I still believe it is right to focus on social deprivation that is deeply entrenched in particular communities, and is reproduced from generation to generation. That cycle needs to be broken.

  • Second, I don't believe that universities should focus exclusively on increasing the number, and proportion, of SIMD20 students they recruit. There are many forms of deprivation and discrimination - gender (at any rate, in subject choices); age; disability (despite statutory responsibilities); studying part-time and so. A university that cares about fair access will take all these into account;

  • Finally, and I hope this doesn't sound a contradiction to the point I have just made, I don't think every university should just be allowed to come up with its own definition of fair access. We need nationally agreed definitions, so the Government can assess progress and so that institutions can also assess their comparative performance.

Annual Report

8. In the second part of my talk I would like to talk about my annual report, which was published in December. I don't have time to cover them all. Instead I will concentrate on some key messages.

9. The first thing I want to emphasise - and it is right at the head of my report - is that we have much to be proud of in Scotland. I know that there are some who look enviously south of the Border and argue that 'free' higher education (for Scottish students) imposes a straitjacket because overall numbers have to be capped - and I am also aware of some studies, flawed in my view, that appear to suggest that a high-fee regime without capped numbers is better for fair access. I don't want to go too much into this debate today, although I have always been a passionate believer in 'free' higher education (from which I personally benefitted, like so many of my generation). All I want to emphasise is the basic point - Scotland has the highest HE participation rate in the UK. According to the latest figures the HEIPR in England is 49 per cent; in Scotland it is more than 55 per cent. What that means is there are young people in Scotland who are going on to higher education when their equivalents in England are still excluded.

10. But access to higher education, in Scotland and in every other country, is still unfair. Young people from socially privileged backgrounds are three times more likely to get a place than young people from the most deprived backgrounds. We need to continue to work hard and make progress. And everyone has to play a part - the ancient universities have a key leadership role, and often they act as gate-keepers for the professions and other elite jobs, but the key role played by the colleges deserves to be celebrated and supported. There can be no opt-out cards.

11. There are three particular areas I cover in my report, which have also been covered by the recent work of Universities Scotland in its work on widening access:

  • The first is contextual admissions, making adjusted offers to applicants who have experienced some form of educational or social disadvantage. I believe we need to rid ourselves completely of the idea that this is somehow making a concession, or even that it carries the risk of 'dumbing down'. On the contrary it is about identifying those applicants with the greatest potential. Although I broadly endorse in my report the recommendations made by Universities Scotland about making contextual admissions more transparent and more consistent, I believe we need to go further - and make much bolder use of contextual admissions (and stop apologising for, notionally, 'displacing' applicants with much greater advantages and slightly better qualifications);

  • The second area is so-called 'articulation' - more simply the credit Higher National students are given if they transfer to degree courses. As HNDs are two-year full-time higher education courses, the default position should be entry to year 3 - or, at a minimum, year 2. Sadly too often that is not the case. Many transferring HN students are, effectively, given no credit at all. This means it takes students longer to completion (and even though they are not paying fees they still have other expenses). It obviously also costs more to the taxpayer, and it 'wastes' funded places that could have been used for other students. We need to get much smarter 'articulation' between HNs and degrees (and between S6 and the first-year in university?);

  • The third area is outreach in general, the efforts universities make to encourage more applications from socially deprived areas and/or schools with a poor track record of sending people on to higher education. Here a lot of excellent work is being done, and lots of different kinds of interventions - summer schools and other types of bridging programmes all the way through to 'children's universities'. But they sometimes tend to be more like 'cottage industries' than assembly-line production. I recognise the need for focused, even personalised, interventions. But we also need to scale them up. At present far too few potential students can benefit. We also need to join them up. Again I recognise the value of targeted and customised provision. But we also need to bring out the consistency of content that already exists, so that any skills and knowledge gained in bridging programmes are portable. And, finally, we need to be able to assess the effectiveness of different kinds of outreach interventions, so we can spread good practice. That is where the Framework for Fair Access, now under development, fits in.

12. There is one more area, not covered by the Universities Scotland work, which I highlight in my report and which relates the Government's Learner Journey 15-24 initiative. This initiative has been treated with caution in some university circles because they fear it is a stalking horse for rationalisation and cost-cutting, potentially undermining the principle of the 4-year degrees. Personally I don't see it as a threat - the 4-year degree is the international standard (it is England that is out-of-step), although I am sure there is scope for improving the transition from school to university. Instead I welcome what is potentially a joined-up and holistic approach to all post-16 education - school, college, university or work-based learning. We are going to see important changes in the learning landscape - for example, an increase in modern and graduate apprenticeship and the irresistible rise of technology - online platforms, social media, data analytics. Scotland has the potential to build a truly integrated system of tertiary education. After all, it has a single Funding Council for FE and HE. It is in that context we should welcome the Learner Journey initiative.

13. I made 23 recommendations in my annual report. But this morning I want to focus on just two:

  • The first is that the Government should review the number of places it funds for Scottish students in colleges and universities. Ultimately any decision to increase that number is a political one. But I do believe that any savings made - for example, after Brexit when other EU students are no longer included in the cap, or from smarter articulation, or from demographic change - should be retained within the system, and ploughed back into extra funded places:

  • The second is that, in my view, the SFC could be a little more challenging in its dealings with institutions. Please don't misunderstand me - I value the civilised relations that current exist between the Council and colleges and universities, and its role as a buffer body. Maybe the Government could have chosen a more cuddly word than 'intensification' when it too suggests a greater degree of challenge. But I do believe that there should be more obvious consequences if the targets in outcome agreements are not met (without reasonable explanation).

A (National) Covenant

14. One is the idea I 'float' in my annual report, and hope to develop in future reports, is that of a renewed 'covenant' between higher education and the nation - and the local and regional communities they serve. As someone whose first degree was (and, maybe, first love still is) history, was struck by the resonance of that word in the story of Scotland - and I preferred it to the more common term 'social contract' because contractual language can be rather dry and reductionist (with apologies to Rousseau), while the idea of a 'covenant' suggests a moral (originally, of course, a religious) responsibility.

15. What I mean by 'covenant' is, first, that institutions should try to see their many connections with their communities as a single whole. Modern universities touch on the lives of their societies in so many ways - the production of professional, expert and highly-skilled workers (but also, I hope, critical and engaged citizens); the production of research, much of which has important and direct 'impact' (and now, of course, we try to measure that 'impact' as part of the Research Excellence Framework); cultural production in the forms of theatre and exhibitions; places where important issues, political and social, can be debated within, we hope, an unbiased if not dispassionate context; institutions that can act as the centre-pieces of their regions, cities and local communities. The list can easily be extended…

16. But universities, like all large and complex organisations, have a tendency to bureaucracy and compartmentalisation. We have separate strategies for teaching and learning, for research and innovation, for community engagement - and, of course, widening access. And they have matching offices to manage and administer these various activities. So it is easy to lose a sense of the whole. I believe it is important to see fair access within that larger whole - not as a kind of standalone activity that has been imposed on universities by Government targets but as part of its core mission, and connected to all the other stands of that core mission.

17. But there is a second reason for such a 'covenant'. I believe there is an increasingly urgent need for universities to re-establish their connection to 'the public', in its wider sense as res publica or the original meaning of 'Commonwealth' (still preserved in the 'Commonwealth of Massachusetts' or the 'Commonwealth of Virginia'). I am not talking here about the technicalities of funding sources - although I must admit I find it difficult to think of a better way to fund universities than through the proceeds of progressive taxation.

18. But I am talking now about something different, and wider. In many ways the 21st-century world has turned out to be a more troubled, and troubling, place than we once imagined. Since the financial crisis of 2008 - a decade ago - we have experienced a more extended economic turn-down than any since the Great Depression of the 1930s. This has compounded an increasing inequality of incomes (and, almost certainly, of life-chances), which had already been apparent in the final decades of the last century - and which has left many people with a sense of exclusion, even grievance. On a global scale these inequalities, alongside geopolitical turbulence, have contributed to mass flows of refugees in extreme need and more generally of immigrants - which, in turn, have provoked nationalist backlashes and populist responses frighteningly reminiscent of the 1930s. Then there is the growing evidence of environmental distress - global warning, more extreme weather events, pollution on our streets.

19. These reflections may strike you as barely relevant to the challenges of governance in Scottish higher education. But I - obviously - disagree. Despite more than half a century of mass growth in student numbers, the emancipation of millions of individuals, universities are still seen by too many people as elitist and out-of-touch. However unfairly, they appear - temporarily, let us hope - to be on the 'wrong side of history'. After all opinion in higher education was overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, while a narrow majority (in the UK - not here in Scotland) voted to leave. In the United States during the Presidential election there was an almost exact correlation between voting for Clinton or Trump and levels of educational attainment - again the campus was (and is) pretty much a Trump-free zone.

20. Now I believe there should be two responses to this:

  • The first is that universities should not lose their nerve. The world is complex place and most of the problems we have to solve are complex ones. We need evidence-based policy, rigorous research, critical enquiry - and technical and professional experts - to help us solve them. We need these things even more in the face of the banal simplicities of (often) 'fake news'.

  • But the second response is different - and this is where reconnecting with the public and the idea of a 'covenant' comes in. We also need to ask why, despite that mass expansion, young people from privileged backgrounds are still three times more likely to go on to higher education (and four more times likely to go to university) than those from deprived backgrounds. We need to ask why so many people in deprived communities think higher education is not for 'people like us'. One, powerful, way in which universities can come back from being 'on the wrong side of history' and get back on the right side of 'progress' is to take fair access seriously. It is a key - maybe the key - element in the 'covenant' which I envisage.

21. I apologise for talking probably for too long - and maybe straying too far from the fair access agenda as it is usually understood, the topic for my talk this morning. Thank you for inviting me, and for listening.


Email: CommissionerForFairAccess@gov.scot

Phone: 0131 244 1266

By post:
Commissioner for Fair Access
6th Floor, Atlantic Quay
Scottish Government
150 Broomielaw
G2 8LU

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