Coronavirus (COVID-19): impact on fair access to higher education - interim report

This interim report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on fair access to higher education considers both the direct impact of the public health measures that have had to be taken and indirect impact of actions taken by colleges and universities to mitigate the worst effects of these measures.

3. Key messages

The cancellation of National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher examinations in the summer and replacement by teacher assessments led to an increase in the number of qualified university applicants, which was met by the (necessary and welcome) provision of additional funded places by the government. Nevertheless it is likely that, because of the limited supply of qualified applicants from socially deprived communities (and other disadvantaged groups), a majority of these extra places were filled by applicants from more privileged social groups.

The abandonment of the SQA's proposed algorithm for moderating teacher assessed grades avoided some negative consequences for fair access, for example a potent Iona bias against bright pupils from under-performing and low-progression schools. But it is still unclear whether teachers tended to give lower grades to pupils from more deprived social backgrounds (there is research evidence that teachers in England under-predict A levels grades for working-class students).

The unplanned inflation in Higher grades and increase in the number of first-year places led to students being admitted to university who in previous years would probably have been enrolled on Higher National programmes in colleges. It might have been the case that they would have been better served by taking HNs. Universities may face additional challenges in terms of support for under-prepared students.

In the first phase of the pandemic schools were closed, with almost all learning online. This disadvantaged pupils from deprived communities because of limited access to suitable IT and study space. Since the summer schools have stayed open. But attendance has been uneven with more pupil absences in deprived communities (which have also been worst hit by the pandemic). Despite the best efforts of schools and local authorities efforts to close the attainment gap will have suffered a set-back. 

The pivot to online had an immediate impact on outreach activities, and also summer schools and other bridging programmes. Typically programmes, which are focused on small groups of students and delivered face-to-face, have had to be delivered online. Although this has allowed more students to be involved, it has probably undermined their effectiveness.

'Digital poverty' has been a major issue for students from more socially deprived and economically challenged backgrounds. Like pupils in schools they are less likely to have access to suitable IT, reliable Wi-fi and quiet study space. Institutions have gone to great lengths to repurpose existing laptops and buy new ones, in order to lend them out to students in the greatest need. They have also worked hard to keep campuses as open as possible. But these efforts cannot fully compensate.

Linked phenomena are 'digital literacy', which is different for the purposes of learning than for social media, and also 'digital fatigue', which may have handicapped in particular the efforts of institutions to reach out to prospective students while still at school. Again the impact on those from deprived communities, or suffering other forms of disadvantage, has been greatest.

In addition to the pivot from face-to-face teaching to online learning induction, as well as enrolment, has had to be moved online. In the case of universities in particular it has been difficult to reproduce the full 'first year' experience which for all students, but especially for those from more deprived communities who are least familiar with university life, provides a key transition from school to higher education.

Financial hardship has increased among all students, but – again – especially students whose parents cannot subsidise their studies and who must support themselves by taking part-time jobs (the supply of which, for example in hospitality, has been curtailed by public health measures which have been most restrictive in more deprived communities with higher infection rates). Institutions have paid out large sums to help the students in greatest need by transferring money from other budgets or, if they can, appealing to former students.

The impact of COVID-19 on mental health has been severe. The demand for support and counselling has been growing for a number of years (it has been argued that pre-Covid poor mental health had already become an epidemic in higher education in its own right). But in many institutions demand has exploded this year. While some students have settled comfortably into learning online, which may even have reduced stressful social encounters on campus, most are suffering higher levels of stress and depression. This is especially the case with students from deprived communities, who already needed more support to adjust to university life and are facing the greatest economic challenges. 

Continuation rates do not appear to have been adversely affected by the pandemic – so far. But there is uncertainty about whether students facing the greatest challenges and suffering the greatest disadvantages will be able to stay the course, and about the extent to which all students have been 'learning' as well as 'attending'. Success rates, in terms of completion and grades, may also be affected, in the short and long term.

An inevitable result of the pandemic is that school performance has been disrupted. Pupils who took National 5 and Highers in the summer gained better-than-expected grades, which may happen again in 2021 if next year's school leavers are not to be disadvantaged. School attendance in the current academic year has been substantially affected by rising infection rates and the need for quarantining, with schools in more deprived areas hardest hit. But many universities are reluctant to revisit their minimum entry requirements or change their policies on contextual admissions – despite the evidence that examination grades have become less reliable and pupils from more deprived communities have suffered the greatest disadvantage.

The impact on staff so far has received limited attention. Most have risen to the challenge of moving their face-to-face teaching online, and supporting their students (especially those in greatest need). Adjustments that would in normal times have taken years have had to be achieved within weeks. It is hardly surprising that morale is fragile, with some staff feeling dissatisfied with the quality of what they are able to provide and also vulnerable because of a lack of training and support. This feeling has been exacerbated by fears that some institutions may seek – or need – to restructure their courses and delivery in the light of the pandemic, with inevitable implications for job security and promotion prospects. 

The overall national target, that 16 per cent of higher education entrants in 2021 should come from the 20-per-cent most deprived communities as measured by SIMD, has probably not been in serious doubt despite the COVID-19 pandemic. But some individual universities may have lost ground – not necessarily in terms of their numerical targets for recruiting SIMD20 students but in terms of the proportion of SIMD20 entrants. As a result of COVID-19 the 2026 target, of 18 per cent of entrants from SIMD20 areas, may be more challenging – confirming the conviction that this is not the time to ease off on efforts to achieve fair access.



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