Laying the foundations for fair access: annual report 2017 from the Commissioner for Fair Access

This is the first annual report from the Commissioner for Fair Access, covering the wider context of access to higher education in Scotland.

Chapter 7: Targeting Disadvantage and Under-Representation

SIMD and other metrics

SIMD is a comparatively sophisticated and fine-grain measure. It takes into account a basket of measures relating to deprivation, and the median population in the 6,000 to 7,000 datazone areas ranked to produce the SIMD is around 760. In contrast POLAR, the UK-wide categorisation of geographical areas on which English widening participation efforts largely rely, covers larger populations and covers one element of deprivation, low participation (although distinguished between different age groups and populations), which in one sense is circular. An area based focus on concentrations of deprivation is important because, if the cycle of deprivation is to be broken, it is important to address it on a community basis by taking into account 'multiple' factors (as the title of the measure indicates). Focusing on individuals whose parents' occupation puts them in a lower socioeconomic class (4-7), which it has been argued would be a better measure (and is available on a consistent UK-wide basis), would not have this effect. Individuals also experience forms of disadvantage that do not arise from socioeconomic deprivation, which can be addressed in others ways. The choice between SIMD and the alternative, the use of individual-level data, therefore, is not simply a technical one. It shifts the focus from socioeconomic deprivation to individual disadvantage.

In any case the individual-level data that would be needed is incomplete, as well its use being constrained by data protection requirements. While some is available on a consistent basis, other key individual-level data either depends on self-reporting, which raises questions about its accuracy as well as consistency ( e.g. the socioeconomic class data discussed above), or is not available at the time when key admissions decisions have to be taken. Although complete, accurate and timely individual-level data would be useful alongside SIMD data, its creation - and, crucially, its accessibility and reliability - presents significant challenges.

However, there has been considerable criticism of the use of SIMD as the main measure of fair access (Weedon, 2014). Like all area based metrics SIMD has limitations when it is used to measure the progress of individuals. For example, the supporting documentation for SIMD states that around one in three people living in the 15 per cent most deprived areas are income deprived (Scottish Government, 2016) which reflects both the fact that SIMD captures a range of factors, not just income, and the fact that SIMD is an area based measure. As a result, by focusing on SIMD20 recruitment to meet the Scottish Government's targets, institutions are likely to include some entrants who are not socioeconomically deprived while excluding poor students from other areas whose needs are just as great. This is particularly a problem in more thinly populated rural areas, especially in the Highlands and Islands, the Borders and parts of the North East. There are no SIMD20 areas in Shetland. But there are significant differences even within the Central Belt. In general terms, SIMD is most accurate in the highly urbanised (and socially stratified) parts of Greater Glasgow and the west of Scotland.

Most universities use a basket of indicators in deciding which applicants should receive adjusted offers. As has already been said, the US report on widening access recommends there should be greater consistency across institutions in their choice and use of these indicators by dividing them into 'core' and 'institution-specific'. This recommendation accepts the need for consistent and comparable data, to ensure that applicants are treated fairly across universities and that progress can be measured. This greater consistency (and transparency) of institutional indicators and the development of better individual-level data on deprivation, combined with the continuing use of SIMD as the primary measure for the purposes of institutional and national targets, opens up the possibility of a more balanced package of measures.

Other forms of disadvantage

Socioeconomic deprivation remains the most significant and intractable form of disadvantage. Too often there has been a reluctance to admit the importance of social class, and to focus on other forms of discrimination such as age, gender and ethnicity. The Scottish Government is also right to focus on the need to break the cycle of inter-generational deprivation, which justifies its emphasis on young adults.

However, socioeconomic deprivation - more bluntly, class - is not the only significant form of disadvantage. The particular needs of students with some form of care experience has already been highlighted by the Government. Although the proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic ( BAME) people in the Scottish population is less overall than in England, there are still substantial numbers particularly in Glasgow, Edinburgh and other cities. Although the overall representation of BAME people in universities broadly reflects the composition of Scotland's population, there are significant variations with 'over-representation' in medicine, engineering, business and computer science and 'under-representation' in some of the traditional humanities (but also education). There are also gender imbalances, not so much in terms of aggregate student numbers but in the distribution of women and men between different subjects. These imbalances are being addressed through gender and equality action plans. It is also likely that disabled students and others with protected characteristics continue to face significant barriers to access. Institutions have a range of legal duties to make reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of these students once they have been admitted. However, these formal responsibilities do not always address the potential disincentives experienced by disabled applicants. There is clearly a risk that colleges and universities will adopt a fragmented approach to addressing all these forms of disadvantage, including socioeconomic deprivation. Fair access needs to be advanced on a broad front, with care taken to coordinate targets, action plans and legal duties.

Adult learners

It is also necessary to recognise the needs of adults who, for whatever reason, have suffered educational disadvantage. Although the Government's target is for all first-degree students, regardless of age, there is a strong perception that the main target group is young entrants. The Government should address what is almost certainly a misperception, for three reasons:

  • First, many adult returners are not so different from young entrants. The average age of Open University students in Scotland is less than 30. It is common for younger adults who have had a less-than-satisfactory school experience to take a little time to recognise the benefits of higher education;
  • Secondly, parents play a key role in shaping the ambitions of their children. If, despite experiencing disadvantage in their own experience of school education, parents see that second chances are available to them, they are much more likely to motivate their children - which is likely to reduce the attainment gap in schools and stimulate demand for higher education in more deprived communities;
  • Finally, there is the issue of inter-generational justice. Bad as the current imbalance in higher education participation between the most and the least deprived is, it was worse in earlier generations. The Government's recent decision to rescind its guidance to colleges to prioritise the needs of full-time learners, which led to a sharp decline in the number of part-time students, is a positive move towards recognising the needs of part-time learners, many of whom are adults.


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