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 4: The Role of Colleges

Colleges play a major, even decisive, role in the delivery of higher education in Scotland (Colleges Scotland, 2016). It is largely because of the colleges' contribution that Scotland has the highest initial participation rate in the UK. It is also largely because of the colleges that significant progress has been made to increasing the participation of SIMD20 students in higher education. Although degree entrants and college HE entrants have increased by a similar number over recent years, a recent Sutton Trust commissioned research report calculated that 90 per cent of the improvement in initial participation could be attributed to the colleges and only 10 per cent to the universities (Hunter-Blackburn et al ., 2016). This creates both opportunities and challenges.

The main opportunities are:

  • Local, accessible higher education is available, which is particularly important for less mobile students (and maybe for students from more deprived backgrounds who lack prior family and peer experience of higher education);
  • Scotland has retained more substantial forms of non-degree vocational education than the rest of the UK in the shape of Higher Nationals ( HNs). In England colleges play a similar widening access role, but on a much reduced scale (and HNs have often been replaced by pre-degree Foundation Degrees south of the Border).
  • As modern and graduate apprenticeships became a more important route into and through higher education the key role of colleges will become an even more important asset.

The work currently being undertaken by the Scottish Government on the Learner Journey highlights the importance of multiple pathways through further and higher education and into employment. The First Minister's Adviser on poverty, Naomi Eisenstadt, in her last report highlighted the risk that too strong an emphasis on access to universities, and largely academic forms of higher education, could have the - unintended - consequence of undervaluing vocational education and college-based higher education, which plays an important role in improving life chances of and employment opportunities for young people in more deprived communities (Independent Adviser on Poverty and Inequality, 2017). It is crucial to maintain this diversity in Scottish higher education.

There are also two challenges arising from the key role played by the colleges in higher education:

1. First, as has already been pointed out in the discussion about progress towards meeting fair access targets, SIMD20 students are over-represented in colleges and some post-1992 universities and under-represented in other universities, particularly the ancients. A recent article in the Journal of Education and Work highlighted an important dilemma in its title: 'Higher education in the college sector: widening access or diversion? Questions and Challenges from the Scottish experience' (Gallacher, 2016). In practice both processes have been significant; colleges have certainly made a major contribution to widening access but at the same time their very success may have diverted students from more deprived backgrounds from (some) universities.

The access imbalance between colleges and universities is unacceptable, not least because graduation from an ancient university confers superior advantages in terms of employment opportunities and future earnings (as well as social capital more generally). It is for that reason that every institution, including the ancient universities, has been asked to admit 10 per cent of its students from SIMD20 areas by 2021. However, this target could have unintended, and undesirable, consequences. As well as acting as a goad to ancient universities to make faster progress towards fair(er) access, institutions that already exceed the 10 per cent target - colleges and (most) post-1992 universities - may be tempted to scale back their efforts. It may also have focused political, and public, attention on the need to allow more students from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds to access elite universities at the expense of access more broadly. Both of these consequences could have a detrimental effect on diversity.

2. The second challenge is that, although HNs continue to be attractive to students as standalone courses and valued by employers, in practice many HN students do aspire to progress to degree courses in universities. There are significant variations between subjects. The majority of students in business studies and computing aim to progress to degree programmes, while numbers are lower in social care. This means that a careful balance needs to be struck between regarding HNs as standalone qualifications and as progression pathways. The introduction of modern and graduate apprenticeships on a significant scale is likely to lead to additional complexity. The policy choices with regard to articulation will be discussed in greater detail in the next section of this report.

More generally, it is important, especially in the context of the Learner Journey initiative, to maximise the number of pathways open to learners while improving the portability of credit; and to avoid as far as possible the perpetuation of old prejudices about the 'superiority' of academic forms of higher education while ensuring that access to the universities that offer more academic courses is no longer so strongly biased in favour of applicants from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. The contribution of the colleges to higher education in general and fair access in particular should be safeguarded and celebrated.


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