The COVID-19 pandemic, and the public health measures taken to combat it, have the potential to deliver a serious check to the impressive progress that Scotland has made towards fair access to higher education. Although Colleges and universities have worked very hard in adverse circumstances that could have not been imagined a few months ago to mitigate the most damaging effects, it is almost impossible to exaggerate the negative impact of COVID-19.
- Outreach activities targeted at under-represented social groups and individuals have had to delivered almost entirely online, undermining the personal hands-on experience that is so often key to their success in raising aspirations and reducing barriers, real and imagined;
- 'Digital poverty' has put students from more socially deprived backgrounds at a serious disadvantage because they lack the tools of effective learning – IT, connectivity and quiet space – in an predominantly online environment;
- The same students are experiencing unprecedented levels of financial hardship, as a result of the shortage of part-time jobs and their inability to fall back for help on parents and carers (who themselves are often being exposed to unprecedented levels of economic strain);
- All students are experiencing an impoverished learning, and social, experience and also increased levels of poor mental health. But deprived and disadvantaged students, with more limited familiarity with university life, are suffering worst;
- There is a real risk the attainment gap between pupils in the most advantaged and most deprived schools will widen as a result of interruptions which have been greatest in areas of the greatest social disadvantage;
- The, perhaps illusory, 'gold standard' of National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher grades has been called into question by the cancellation of examinations. The uncertainty could destabilise carefully calibrated systems of contextual admissions which have benefited applicants from socially deprived communities.
In short, to paraphrase the Matthew principle, 'to those that have least, the most is being taken away'.
Of course, there are also grounds for hope. COVID-19 has laid bare the massive, and morally unacceptable, inequalities that exist in society and economy and disfigure our democracy. They are now in plain view. They cannot be denied. There is no longer any room for scepticism about the urgent need for fair access. Nor can these inequalities be minimised, and attributed to gaps in attainment or deficits in aspiration. Effects can no longer be confused with causes. If the case for fair access is strengthened, and also for more radical action rather than incremental interventionism, some good will have come from the terrible experiences of the past few months.
Finally, three other issues should be considered:
The first is the pace and extent of the return to 'normality'. Although it can no longer be seriously argued there will be a full return in 2021, it remains an open question about how long the scarring to society and the economy will last. In the context of fair access to higher education it will clearly take several years for the effects of disruption to schooling to work through, and for the shock to ambitions and aspirations among young people in more deprived communities to wear off. In other words the measures that colleges and universities, as emergency responses in 2020, will probably have to be continued for several years – and perhaps on a permanent basis because the disadvantage (and, to speak frankly, discrimination) that COVID-19 has highlighted, and in response to which these measures were taken, are deep-rooted.
The second issue is future demand for higher education. It would be reasonable to expect demand to increase as a result of COVID-19. In the short term the number of alternatives, for example directly into employment, is likely to be reduced as firms struggle to adapt to the post-Covid environment. Higher levels of unemployment are also forecast. There is some evidence from the experience of the current academic year that, if demand increases (in this case because of the higher-than-expected grades that swelled the number of qualified applicants), applicants from more socially deprived backgrounds and other forms of disadvantage may be crowded out, even when extra funded places are provided – at least in proportional terms. A further factor is that the need for up-skilling and retraining will become urgent as the economy recovers, if – as expected – the experience of COVID-19 leads to far reaching changes in the nature and balance of jobs. Expanding opportunities for adult education, in a broader sense, will be equally urgent to aid 'social recovery' from the scars of the pandemic.
The third issue is that there is risk that the lessons of the enforced shift from face-to-face to online may be learned too well. The benefits of online outreach – such as its increased reach or more efficient use of staff time – may be over-emphasised while its deficits as a means to build confidence and remove misconceptions about university life among those least familiar with it may be downplayed. On a wider plane the success with which institutions have been able to pivot to online learning in the COVID-19 emergency may be taken as a wider endorsement of the inexorable movement towards a cyber future for higher education, by emphasising the benefits of customised – and, once again, cost-effective delivery. Up to now online learning has typically been regarded as complementary to in-person teaching (and, in some cases, the benefits of residential university education) not as a substitute for them. It is an open question whether students at large would benefit from such a future, beyond the scope of this report and my competence as Commissioner for Fair Access. But it is not an open question that students who have been historically disadvantaged should have access to the very best higher education on offer on the same terms as other students.