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.

Conclusion: Evolution or Step-Change?

Fair access is a human right as well as an economic necessity. To be able fully to participate as a citizen some (substantial) experience of education beyond school is needed, although this can well take place in a workplace context. All democratic societies face complex challenges - of national identity (and global citizenship), of community engagement, of social justice and solidarity, of creativity in terms both of culture and innovation - as well as of sustainable economic growth. All citizens therefore have a right to the educational tools that enable them to understand and make a contribution to meeting these challenges.

There are two approaches to advancing the cause of fair access. The first is an evolutionary approach, based on achieving slow but steady progress. Another adjective - 'attritional' - also comes to mind to describe this approach. Sometimes the policies required to advance towards fair access may appear to be in conflict with other key goals to which (all) universities incline - for example, the recruitment of the 'best' students (as a mark of institutional reputation), higher levels of efficiency (as measured by completion rates and degree outcomes) and excellence in research (as measured by REF, the Research Excellence Framework). It is not unfair to characterise the fair access efforts of many Scottish universities in evolutionary terms. In this first approach the tools are familiar - more substantial investment in bridging programmes (whether outreach programmes in schools, or in communities, or summer schools); more vigorous use of contextual admissions; and more generous, although still discretionary, allowances of advanced standing to articulating students. The first two tools directly address fair access; the third addresses it indirectly.

The second approach is more radical. It is based on the belief that a step-change is needed to secure truly fair access, initially for SIMD20 students as set out in the Government's targets but eventually for all disadvantaged groups. Part-time students, adult learners and applicants with disabilities all currently face obstacles, although some of these can be removed more easily than deep-rooted socioeconomic deprivation. In this second approach, less familiar tools may be needed. Institutional priorities may need to be rebalanced, so that meeting fair access targets carries the same weight as improved REF performance. Institutional autonomy may need to be pooled, because guaranteed progression pathways between institutions will have to be established within a wider tertiary education system, which Scotland is well placed to create. Current and conventional definitions of success may need to be rethought, to make them more learner-centred and less institution-centred. Such tools clearly require more fundamental changes in institutional behaviour and values.

Which approach should be taken? On the basis of current national data it is likely that system-wide targets can be met by an essentially evolutionary approach, although it may be a stretch (in particular for the 2021 targets; the 2030 target may still be sufficiently distant to offer - illusionary - comfort). There is no lack of goodwill, at the level of nearly all institutional leaders, and enthusiasm, among access practitioners and admissions staff. There is also no lack of creative and innovative ideas about new ways to achieve fair access. Even without the goad of politically mandated targets there is a strong commitment to widening access in Scottish higher education.

However, meeting institutional targets may require the second - more radical or step-change - approach. Some institutions - colleges and (most) post-1992 universities - have made good progress towards meeting their fair access targets or even exceeded them, although as has already been indicated this success carries the risk of a loss of momentum. Fair access is already at the heart of their institutional missions, and it is often essential in terms of their recruitment (and 'business') strategies. Other institutions - in particular, some of the ancient universities - still have much further to go. Fair access is often more peripheral to their core missions, and meeting access targets may be (or perceived to be) in sharper conflict with achieving other, arguably more fundamental, goals. However, there are risks in adopting too categorical a distinction. There are examples of research intensive and high-tariff universities that have embraced - and, crucially, internalised - fair access, just as there are examples of more teaching focused and lower-tariff universities with less impressive records of progress.

The choice between evolutionary and step-change approaches to fair access, therefore, is too stark. But the scale of the challenge cannot be underestimated. It may even transcend the immediate targets set by the Government. How is it possible to achieve fair access - and fair experiences and fair outcomes - within a tertiary and, in particular, higher education system to which access is rationed? In the middle of the last century universal access to secondary education was achieved. In most countries, including Scotland (with a few exceptions), secondary education is now delivered through comprehensive schools to which all young people have access regardless of their ability. Yet inequalities, in terms of attainment, examination success and progression to higher education, remain - even within this universal system organised along comprehensive lines. These inequalities remain strongly correlated to social class, although other forms of disadvantage are also significant. In a higher education system that, despite decades of expansion, is designed not to meet the needs of all but only those of barely more than half the relevant population, these inequalities will inevitably be even more difficult to eradicate. Regarded in this light the achievement of truly fair access requires a step-change, a revolution in practices, priorities and mind-sets.

Even if an evolutionary approach that does not require such a revolution allows current targets to be met, this may not be enough. The battle for fair access will not be won if colleges and universities see it mainly in terms of meeting externally imposed targets, any more than better school examination results produce better education. Both, meeting targets and higher attainment levels, are necessary but not sufficient conditions. Fair access will be secure only when it is not only the Government's goal but also the ambition of the whole sector.


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