This is my fifth, and final, annual report as Commissioner for Fair Access.
My first Annual Report Laying the Foundations for Fair Access (December 2017) aimed to offer a comprehensive survey of the access landscape. But I highlighted two particular issues. The first was funding. Although free tuition is the settled policy of the Scottish Government (and I agree), I felt it was important to discuss all the arguments, for and against. The second was articulation where progress has been slow in allowing Higher National graduates full credit if they transfer to degree courses in universities. The report also covered contextual admissions, the role of colleges and the need to build strong access and participation practitioner communities.
In my second Annual Report Building on Progress Towards Fair Access (January 2019) 13 months later I tackled two controversial issues: first, the focus on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) as the core measure for measuring progress and the case for using other indicators such as Free School Meals (FSMs); and, second, the case for expanding funded student places to create the headroom for fairer access without 'displacing other well qualified candidates. The report also included a special focus on school attainment, the Curriculum for Excellence and their implications for fair access to higher education.
My third Annual Report Fair Access to Higher Education: Progress and Challenges (June 2020), published in addition to a regular review of progress towards meeting the Government's interim targets in 2021 and 2026, focused on two particular topics. The first was fair access to the professions, and in particular medicine, the law and the creative industries such as music and theatre. These professions were chosen because of their contrasting features. The second topic was other forms of disadvantage in addition to socio-economic deprivation, in particular age, gender, ethnicity, disability and care experience. Many of these forms of disadvantage intersect and overlap with wider social deprivation.
My fourth report was a special report on The Impact of COVID-19 on Fair Access to Higher Education (December 2020). It considers the effects of disruptions, and closures, in schools, colleges and universities on outreach and access activities, the student experience, mental health and articulation. It focused also on the implications of 'digital poverty' and financial hardship. I called for a special recovery effort to overcome the shocks of Covid-19, which clearly had the potential to set back progress on fair access.
My most recent Annual Report Re-Committing to Fair Access: a Plan for Recovery (June 2021) covers three main topics. First came the usual progress report - and here there was good news to report as 16 percent of the new entrants to universities now come from the 20-per-cent most deprived areas in Scotland (If higher education students in colleges are counted, there have been 16 percent for a while). The next, and most substantial section, of my report looks back at the recommendations of the Commission for Widening Access and attempted to assess which have been implemented, which have yet to be implemented, and which have ceased to be so relevant and perhaps need to be modified. Finally the report looks at the continuing impact of Covid-19 on fair access.
These reports, and the six Discussion Documents that I have also published, are only a small fraction of the publications on fair access and widening participation. The sheer volume of publications - other reports by Government and public agencies, and by sector bodies; reports from universities and colleges on successful initiatives and good practice; institutional and academic research - is a testimony to the strong focus on access and a demonstration of how embedded access has become in national, sectoral and institutional strategies since the publication of the report of the Commission on Widening Access six years ago. There has been a step-change in both successful practice and creative thinking about access.
As with my previous reports, with the exception of the special report on the impact of Covid-19 on fair access, I am pleased to be able to highlight continuing progress towards meeting the Government's targets - the two interim targets that by 2021, last year, 16 percent of new entrants to full-time first-degree courses should come from the 20 percent most deprived communities in Scotland (as measured by SIMD), and 18 percent in 2026; and the final target of 20 percent, a level playing-field in terms of access to higher education, by 2030. The first interim target, of course, has been met. Although progress towards 18 percent in four years' time and 20 percent by the end of the decade cannot be taken for granted (for reasons I will explore in this report), Scotland continues to set the pace in terms of fair access to higher education among the UK nations. At a time when there is much talk about the 'failures' of Government, both UK and Scottish, it is good to be able to point to an unambiguous success.
Credit for that success, of course, is due not only to the Government and other public agencies. It is the commitment of institutions that has made possible this progress towards fair access - on the 'bridge' because the support of Principals and other institutional leaders has been crucial, but perhaps even more important in the 'engine room' where access and participation practitioners work. Other organisations such as trade unions, in particular the University and College Union (UCU), and student organisations, notably of course NUS Scotland, have also made very important contributions to achieving progress. It has been a 'whole system' effort, and therefore a 'whole system' success.
As I said at the start of this Foreword this is my last Annual Report as Commissioner. I have always been conscious that I have been Scotland's first Commissioner for Fair Access so, in effect, I started with a blank sheet of paper (apart from the rather formal terms of reference set out in the report of the Commission on Widening Access). Over the last six years I have learnt some lessons about how best to approach my role, notably the need for a more visible web presence separate from the Government's website. I am pleased that the Government has decided to continue the post of Commissioner by appointing a successor in due course. Although I am aware that my impact has necessarily been limited, in part by the limited resources to which I had access, I am convinced of the value of the post as a focus and symbol of the attention that needs to be paid to access and participation, which has produced the progress that has already achieved - and which will be needed to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
Finally, I would like to thank all those who I have met, in-person and (more recently) on-screen, and have supported my work as Commissioner in universities and colleges (and a few in schools and local authorities), sectoral organisations including Universities Scotland and Colleges Scotland, the Scottish Funding Council and other public agencies, other organisations such as UCU and NUS Scotland. In particular I would like to single out two groups - access and participation practitioners in institutions, the 'engine room' of fair access; and members of the access team and analytical services within the Scottish Government who have provided sustained and effective support (despite the difficulties created by Covid-19) and who have always fully respected my independence from the Government they serve - as have the three Ministers for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training, Shirley-Anne Somerville, Richard Lochhead and Jamie Hepburn, during my time as Commissioner.
Commissioner for Fair Access
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