Fair Access to Higher Education: progress and challenges

Third annual report of the Commissioner for Fair Access in which he assesses the progress and challenges on fair access in Scotland.


Scotland has made remarkable progress towards fair access to higher education, which is a tribute to leadership from the top in the government and the SFC, the commitment of university and college sector and institutional leaders and - above all perhaps - the energy and dedication of those on the front line of access. It provides a model for the rest of the United Kingdom and wider efforts across Europe to address entrenched inequality in participation in higher education.

But this very success makes it important to maintain momentum. Fair access will never be 'done'. Some obstacles are well known:

  • the attainment gap in schools between the socially advantaged and the socially deprived (which can never be judged simply to be a 'deficit' on the part of the latter);
  • differences in aspirations (which, again, are not the 'fault' of those with lesser ambitions but an accurate reflection of the disparity in future life-chances);
  • deeply entrenched and other unexamined assumptions (for example, about traditional standards, often lazily glossed as 'excellence' and bolstered by league tables and other rankings, and, more broadly, about the expected patterns and habits of university study); and
  • a reluctance to develop a properly articulated and coordinated system of tertiary education with flexible pathways for all learners in the place of segmented sectors and within these sectors traditional hierarchies of institutions.

Scotland's success has owed a lot to a broader vision of fair access - as a wider social reform project rather than simply a limited exercise in remedying the 'deficits' of students from more deprived communities. It is that breadth of vision that will lead to further advances towards fair access in the coming decade, and also to provide the resilience to overcome the inevitable challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and its equally inevitable consequences - disruption in patterns of learning; strained public finances; a transformed, and in the short term at any rate depressed, economy and employment market; and perhaps higher levels of social anxiety.


Email: karen.frew@gov.scot

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