Maintaining the Momentum Towards Fair Access: annual report 2022

The fifth annual report of the Commissioner for Fair Access concludes that all indicators on the fair access scoreboard are flashing green, but Professor Scott warns that maintaining momentum could become more difficult following the damage done by interrupted schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic.


As indicated in my Foreword progress towards meeting the Government's fair access target continues to be encouraging. The interim target of 16 percent of new entrants to higher education coming from the 20 percent most deprived communities in Scotland (SIMD20) in 2021 was met. This success gives a degree of confidence that the next interim target, 18 percent of entrants from SIMD20 areas by 2026, will also be met.

However, there remain two areas of concern:

  • First, the longer-term impact of disruptions to schooling as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Early indications are that the immediate impact of this disruption, which was most serious in the most deprived areas, has not been as great as had been feared - certainly in terms of 2020 and 2021 entrants. But it is probably still too early to assess the longer-term impact, particularly with regard to the earlier and middle years of secondary education. Although students on the brink of higher education entry have clearly not been deflected by Covid disruption, it is possible that younger students from socially deprived backgrounds may have failed to get on course for higher education, in terms of attainment and aspiration (and, more prosaically, subject choices). Research suggests that all students have fallen behind where they would otherwise have been, and that students from more deprived backgrounds have fallen furthest behind.
  • Second, the cost-of-living crisis produced by high inflation, frozen social benefits and stagnant wages against a background of lower post-Brexit economic growth will hit disadvantaged families hardest. It would be optimistic to imagine that it will not have some impact on efforts to reduce the attainment gap in schools - and, by extension, to close the access gap in terms of entry to higher education between the least and the most disadvantaged - overall, and between colleges and universities and different types of university.

Neither factor necessarily makes it likely that the next interim target will not also be met. But taken together they suggest that it may not be as easy to meet. The 2021 target was achieved against a background of a sustained narrowing of the access gap following the final report of the Commission on Widening Access, and the reinforced emphasis on achieving fair access. That emphasis remains. But there is already evidence that the pace at which the access gap has been narrowing has slowed over the past two years - and the next target is only four years away. The final target, of 20 percent of entrants coming from SIMD20 areas by the end of the decade, is only eight years ahead. To achieve it the access gap will need to narrow by almost 4 percentage points, or half a percentage point a year. The scale of the task ahead should not be minimised.

After a summary of the report and key recommendations this report is divided into five sections:

1. A progress report on meeting the targets. This will analyse the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the Scottish Funding Council and other sources. This data covers the characteristics of 2020-21 first-year entrants and all-years enrolment, candidates for entry in 2022 and school leaver destinations by SIMD, disability and type of school. Similar data for individual institutions is also discussed.

2. A discussion of the case for and against using SIMD as the only authoritative metric for measuring proposes towards fair access. This has been discussed in earlier reports. It has been persistently argued that reliance on SIMD leads to socially deprived young people living outside SIMD20 postcodes being disadvantaged because they do not 'count', while less deprived students living in these postcodes are included. Significant work has been undertaken to find ways to use take-up of Free School Meals (FSMs) alongside SIMD20 postcodes to get a finer-grain measure. But that work has stalled. This report focuses in particular on the three institutions in the north east of Scotland - the University of Aberdeen, Robert Gordon University and North East Scotland College - where SIMD is seen as particularly problematic.

3. Lessons from elsewhere in the UK, positive and negative. In Wales substantial progress has been made towards developing a more integrated tertiary education system covering further education, higher education, on-the-job training and community learning - echoing some of the work undertaken in Scotland under the heading of the Learner Journey 16-24, which has yet to produce concrete results. The establishment of an integrated and comprehensive post-school system with flexible pathways between its various elements is clearly helpful for achieving fairer access. Meanwhile in England, which as the largest UK nation exercises a powerful influence (for better or worse), important changes have been made in its approach to access and participation. In brief, the emphasis has been shifted from contextual, or variable, university admission requirements to raising, and attempting to equalise, levels of prior attainment in schools, and also focusing more strongly on graduate success. The Welsh initiative potentially has important lessons for Scotland; the English shift less so.

4. Other issues - (i) student numbers and fear about 'displacement'; (ii) the Scottish Framework for Fair Access; (iii) the continuing impact of Covid and, in particular, balance between in-person and virtual delivery of courses in higher education; (iv) articulation (not only from Higher Nationals to degrees); and (v) school attainment where important work is under way to improve the Curriculum for Excellence in the light of the OECD report. All five have important implications for fair access.

5. A concluding discussion of the best balance in the work on access and participation between focusing on individual advancement, which supports talented and motivate individuals to achieve their full potential by removing barriers, and social inclusion, which requires higher education to help to address community-wide and multi-generational disadvantage. My argument is that the two must be addressed together. To focus on the former at the expense of the latter encourages talent to drain away from communities, potentially entrenching their disadvantage and denying future generations the same opportunities. To focus on the latter at the expense of the former, as well as disadvantaging talented individuals, may allow initiatives by colleges and universities to be substituted for more direct social, economic and political interventions.



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