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.

Lessons From Elsewhere

Over the past five years Scotland has set the pace with regard to fair access across the UK. Its success is due to a number of factors - political leadership (the personal commitment of the First Minister but also cross-party support), a clear framework for implementation (even if the focus on SIMD has been controversial - see above), strong commitment at institutional and sectoral level and the impressive capacity and resilience of access and participation practitioners. Its success also reflects strongly held beliefs about the distinctiveness of Scottish education, its more popular orientation than perhaps in other UK nations and its special place in the nation's history.

However, there are always important lessons - positive and negative - to be learnt from elsewhere in the UK. This section of my report considers recent developments in Wales and England that are relevant to the future development of policy on fair access.

1. Wales

Higher education in Wales is provided by 8 universities - four 'pre-1992' universities with Royal Charters, and four 'post-1992' universities - and higher education courses are also offered in further education colleges. There were 145,000 higher education students in 2020-21. Unlike Scotland there are substantial cross-border flows of students between Wales and England, with 46,000 English domiciled students studying in Wales and 33,000 Welsh domiciled students studying in England.

At present higher education is funded through the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) on a similar pattern to the SFC with outcome agreements. However, the main instrument for promoting access is institutional access and opportunity plans for HEFCW, which are separate from outcome agreements and are modelled on the access and participation plans that are required in England.

All this is about to change. HEFCW will be replaced by a Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER), which will be responsible not only for higher education but for further education, adult community education and even school sixth forms (approximately the equivalent of the senior phase in Scottish secondary education), which previously had been funded by the Welsh Government. In all, the new CTER will cover 300,000 students and learners, and have a budget second only to the NHS in Wales. A Bill is currently before the Senedd (Parliament), and the CTER is expected to be fully operational by 2023-24.

The key features of the Welsh reform that are relevant to fair access are:

1. The Welsh Government has developed an overarching vision for all tertiary education and training in Wales. This vision, supported by the establishment of the CTER, will make it possible to develop a properly coordinated system of post-school education with multiple entry points and flexible progression pathways.

2. The CTER will have responsibilities for all forms of post-school education. Its scope will be significantly wider than that of the SFC, the remit of which is confined to higher education institutions and colleges (and which has maintained, in effect, two separate governance and funding regimes for higher and further education).

3. The existing access and opportunity plans drawn up by institutions, which have widely been regarded as both cumbersome and ineffective, will be scrapped. Instead 'a more strategic outcomes focused approach' will be taken, with the existing plans rolled up into one of the eight strategic duties the CTER has been given by the Welsh Government, that for ensuring equality of opportunity more generally.

Each of these features of the Welsh reforms has potential lessons for Scotland. First, the ambition behind the Learner Journey 16-24 initiative, which so far has produced few tangible results, should be revived. I have argued strongly for the development of a coordinated and articulated tertiary education system such as has been set out in the Welsh Government's vision. Such a system could remove barriers between different types of students and encourage closer collaboration between institutions, with obvious benefits for fair access.

Second, the SFC should make more of its responsibility for both higher and further education even if its remit is narrower than that of the CTER, by developing convergent funding models and putting opportunities for students' progression at the heart of its strategy. Finally, the Welsh experience of folding specific access plans into wider strategic ambitions, at both institutional and funding council levels, could help in any attempt to allow institutions to set more customised access targets, no longer calibrated exclusively in terms of SIMD.

2. England

The English approach to fair access is rooted in a quid-pro-quo compromise between charging (higher) tuition fees and safeguarding access. In 2005 the UK Government increased tuition fees from £1,000 to £3,000 but also established the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to police access and participation plans which institutions were required to submit. Unless these plans were approved institutions would be unable to charge higher fees. The detailed arrangements have changed - fees have been tripled again, OFFA has now been incorporated into the Office for Students which is now the regulator of English higher education, and growing numbers of 'alternative providers' (private - often for-profit - colleges) have been approved. But the essential deal between fees and access has remained.

Access and participation plans in England typically included details of access activities, initiatives and targets - school links, outreach activities, access courses, summer schools, bridging programmes, contextual admissions, guaranteed places and indicative targets. Although OFFA / OfS offered broad guidance, institutions were generally free to set their own priorities.

Now, prompted by UK Ministers, OfS with a new Director for Access and Participation (with a background in school academies), has made far-reaching changes to its approach to access. A much more prescriptive approach has been adopted which requires institutions to address just four priorities:

  • Priority A: Make access and participation plans more accessible in a way that prospective and current students, their parents and other stakeholders can easily understand.
  • Priority B: Develop, enhance and expand their partnerships with schools and other local and national organisations, to help raise the pre-16 attainment of young people from underrepresented groups across England.
  • Priority C: Set out how access to higher education for students from underrepresented groups leads to successful participation on high quality courses and good graduate outcomes.
  • Priority D: Seek to develop more diverse pathways into and through higher education through expansion of flexible Level 4 and 5 courses and degree apprenticeships.

The last three priorities reflect the political priorities of the current UK Government. First, making adjustments in entry requirements to reflect disadvantage - which is the purpose of minimum entry requirements in Scotland - and making significant use of contextual admissions are treated with skepticism. Consequently English institutions are being discouraged from going far down that road. Instead they are being encouraged to focus their access policies on raising attainment among disadvantaged young people in schools. Universities are not expected to modify their admissions policies but to focus instead on helping to address under-achievement in schools. Second, a much stronger emphasis is now being placed on success in the labour market, while ignoring the social class based biases that shape entry to key parts of that market. This reflects the belief of UK Ministers that disadvantaged students are at risk of being channeled into 'low quality' courses with poor outcomes in terms of good / 'graduate' jobs. Finally the new English approach emphasises alternative pathways to academic degrees.

Unlike the example of Wales, there seem to be few lessons for Scotland in this new English approach to fair access. While working with schools and helping to raise attainment levels are clearly elements in a balanced approach to fair access, universities are not always best placed to take the lead. Indeed it can be argued that the over-involvement of universities in secondary education, especially for disadvantaged students, could have the effect of privileging academic success focused on university entry. There are also other important elements in a balanced access package, including contextual admissions (and also self-critical reflection by universities on the continuing relevance of traditional entry requirements). Successful continuation and completion are also key to the success of fair access. But to define success too narrowly in terms of well-paid professional jobs is too reductionist, downgrading other forms of employment in less well paid (but maybe more valuable) professions and the other social and cultural benefits that are equally important outcomes of a successful higher education. Alternatives to full-time higher education are also important. But these other pathways are most likely to flourish within a properly comprehensive system of tertiary education and training such as is being developed in Wales, rather than in the hierarchical system that has emerged in England

Recommendation 3

In taking forward the SFC sustainability review, and in future considerations of the structure of Scottish Government agencies and their responsibilities, attention should be paid to the current work of the Welsh Government in promoting an integrated system of tertiary education embracing higher education (and university research), further education, on-the-job training and community adult education.

Other Issues

1. Student numbers and 'displacement'

There has been a persistent and nagging concern that SIMD20 applicants may 'displace' better qualified applicants from other SIMD quintiles. In particular, the fear is that applicants in the middle quintiles will be squeezed between SIMD80 applicants, with the qualifications and connections that effectively guarantee them university places, and SIMD20 applicants, who are the focus of fair access efforts. In the past two or three years that concern has tended to abate. But there is always the potential that it could flare up again.

In earlier annual reports I have discussed the extent to which such 'displacement' has taken place, if at all. However, whatever the evidence, the fear of 'displacement' tends to undermine the case for fair access. For that reason the overall number of funded places in higher education institutions is a relevant factor. More places and consequently reduced competition for university entry means fear of 'displacement' eases; fewer places and increased competition tend to heighten that fear.

The SFC is always faced with a difficult trade-off between maintaining or increasing funded places and protecting funding per student. In its allocation of funding for 2022-23 it has increased overall funds for teaching by 2 percent, less than the general rate of inflation and specific increases in university costs. But this cash increase is in line with the SFC's allocation from the Government. It is not within my remit as Commissioner for Fair Access to comment on the overall adequacy of funding for higher education in Scotland, only to consider the consequences of funding and funded places for fair access. Three points are relevant here.

  • In 2020-21 additional funding for 1,287 students in 2020-21 and for a further 2,500 in 2021-22 was provided to reflect the greater number of qualified applicants as a result of the replacement of formal examinations by teacher assessed grades. This funding has been continued, in the sense that these students will continue to be funded during their third and second years respectively. If that later-years funding had not been continued, there would have had to be a matching reduction in first-year places. It is therefore welcome.
  • However, the overall number of funded places has been cut - from 123,225 in 2021-22 to 121,797 in 2022-23. Currently overall applications for 2022 entry are lower than for 2021 entry, but SIMD20 applications have increased. So it is possible the lower cap on funded places could lead to greater competition - which could reactivate fears about 'displacement'. Demand for higher education is especially difficult to predict against the background of continuing post-Covid uncertainties, particularly with regard to school-leaver and graduate jobs.
  • Finally the Widening Access and Retention Fund has been frozen at £15.6 million, which is an effective cut. Although only eight higher education institutions receive allocations from this fund, it has played a significant role in promoting fair access (and success). This disappointment is balanced to some extent by the allocation of £1.6 million to universities to address 'digital poverty' (out of a total of £5 million provided to colleges and universities by the Government).

The impact of limited continuing funding for the additional places provided in 2020-21 and 2021-22, the slight reduction in overall funded places and the freezing of the Widening Access and Retention Fund on efforts to promote fair access is difficult to assess. But it would be unfortunate if fear of 'displacement' were to be reignited.

Recommendation 4

The Scottish Government should commit to providing an adequate number of (fully) funded places in higher education to reduce the possibility that progress towards fair access for the most deprived students might increase competition for places among other social groups.

2. Scottish Framework for Fair Access

One of the key recommendations of the Commission on Widening Access was that a Framework for Fair Access should be established to encourage more rigorous evaluation of access initiatives and to spread good practice. The Framework was established in 2019 with two elements, or pillars - to create a web-based toolkit that would identify access initiatives, group them under broad themes and summarise the available evidence about their effectiveness; and to support the creation of a network of access and participation practitioners in colleges and universities, the Scottish Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP).

Thanks to the Commission on Widening Access, Scotland was early in recognising the importance of evaluation. The Government itself underlined this importance by highlighting the Commission's recommendation to establish the Framework for Fair Access as a 'foundational' recommendation. The emphasis on the importance of evaluation has now been taken up by the Office for Students in England in its new approach to access. Despite being established only a year before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, the Framework has been successful. SCAPP has been particularly successful in building networks among practitioners and supporting access events.

However, the Framework has had to exist on hand-to-mouth funding provided by the SFC. Regular bids have had to be made to the SFC for project funding, although the purpose of such funding is not to provide permanent support but to pump-prime new initiatives. There has been a failure to agree on the best model for future funding - a direct grant by the Government (perhaps through the Commissioner for Fair Access, although currently the Commissioner has no budget); SFC funding (which would be difficult to justify on a semi-permanent basis); or institutional subscriptions, whether voluntary or as a condition of grant (although the basis for calculating such subscriptions would be difficult).

However, the absence of sustainable funding has made it difficult in particular to develop the web-based toolkit. In my previous two annual reports I have recommended that the Framework should be established on a sustainable basis. Sadly no action has been taken. I am repeating that recommendation in this report.

Recommendation 5

Sustainable funding should be provided for the Scottish Framework for Fair Access, to enable development of the web-based toolkit on good practice and to strengthen the community of access and participation practitioners.

3. The continuing impact of Covid

Post-Covid has the potential to present as many challenges to fair access as Covid. The desire both to return to 'normal' and to learn some of the, possibly misleading, lessons of the past three years poses significant risks:

  • First, of the four 'harms' identified by the Government and used as the framework for the discussions of the Covid Recovery Group, the third - social 'harms', which includes higher and further education - is the most difficult to quantify but potentially the most serious. There may be a temptation to focus on mitigating the other 'harms' - broadly, the direct health effects of Covid; the indirect health effects; and the impact on the economy - because they may appear easier to address. Efforts to mitigate social 'harms' could receive lower priority as a result.
  • Next, what can be termed the moral momentum created by the harsh light that Covid shone on inequalities in education may be dissipated. The 'return to normal' could lead to greater acceptance of these inequalities just when renewed effort is required to tackle them.
  • Third, more practically, the exceptional support provided by the Government to mitigate the worse effects of Covid - for example, extra funding to tackle digital poverty and financial hardship - may be difficult to maintain. The scaling back of equivalent support in England by the UK Government will have a negative impact on the financial resources available to the Scottish Government in the so-called 'Barnet consequentials'. The Government itself will also have other urgent expenditure priorities as the cost-of-living crisis follows hard on the heels of Covid.
  • Fourth, the apparent ease with which colleges and universities, greatly to their credit, were able to pivot to online learning may lead some to conclude that because of the greater flexibility, accessibility and (above all) efficiency of online provision it should play a much greater part in the delivery of further and higher education in the future. But, before that becomes accepted with uncritical enthusiasm, two points need to be considered. First, the pivot from face-to-face teaching to online learning relied on a 'Dunkirk spirit' on the part of academic staff - for which a price has had to be paid in terms of excessive workloads, mental stress and burnout (and also possibly more detailed impacts such as a loss of research momentum for more junior university staff). Second, there is evidence that face-to-face contact is particularly important for disadvantaged applicants and students - in terms of successful outreach, campus engagement and student experience.
  • Finally, although the data for the first Covid affected year, 2020-21, is encouraging (as an earlier section in this report on the access scorecard has shown), there could still be deeper scarring in the medium and long term. Although institutions on the whole have been successful in maintaining, and even improving on, levels of recruitment of SIMD20 entrants, most of these entrants were already on a trajectory to higher education entry. Significant numbers of students in the latter years of primary education and early and middle years of secondary education may never get on that trajectory as a result of missed schooling, misguided subject choices and inadequate online learning.

4. Articulation

Smoother articulation from HNs to degree courses is crucial for fair access. Getting on for half of SIMD20 entrants to full-time first-degree courses (40.9) come via the college route. Most have successfully completed an HNC or HND course. Yet they continue to encounter difficulties in being given proper credit for what they have achieved.

The SFC has set a target of 75 percent of HN students entering degree programmes being given advanced standing. Universities Scotland and Colleges Scotland established a National Articulation Forum which produced its final report in 2020. Yet very limited progress has been made. Over the last seven years, the proportion of HN students entering first-degree programmes has only increased from 55.7 to 60.5 percent - on the wider measure, which counts anyone who has an HN qualification however long ago. On the main (and more realistic) measure, which only counts HN qualifications gained in the previous three years, the percentages are 53.5 to 58.3.

Even this, far from impressive, percentage disguises the widespread reluctance to give HN students advanced standing. Of those who do get some credit for their qualifications the great majority receives only partial credit - 'advanced progression' in official terminology. The number given full credit, ie entry into the third year of a degree course for an entrant with an HND, has actually fallen - from 805 (2014-15) to 605 (2020-21) according to the main measure. In some subject areas there is, in effect, no allowance for HN students' prior study. Students in just four subjects - business and management, computing, engineering and technology and social sciences - make up more the half of all HN students given any form of advanced standing.

There are, of course, good reasons why some students should only receive partial credit. These include poor fit between their HN and degree courses, and students themselves may lack confidence. But there are no good reasons for granting HN students no credit and, in effect, requiring them to start from the beginning like school leavers. Not only does this disadvantage them by prolonging their period in higher education, and even acting as a disincentive to undertake a degree programme; but it represents a potential waste of public resources that could more usefully be spent on funding extra student places.

It is becoming clear that relying wholly on the voluntary action of institutions, individually or collectively, will not be enough to bring about the step-change in attitudes to articulation that is needed. This is not simply a question of articulation between HNs and degrees, important as that is for achieving fair access. Smooth articulation between modern and degree apprenticeships, and other novel qualifications likely to come on stream in the coming years, and traditional courses is essential to build the kind of comprehensive, integrated and multi-pathway tertiary education system that Scotland needs (and which the Welsh Government is attempting to foster in Wales).

Recommendation 6

The Scottish Funding Council should take more decisive action to enforce its 75-per-cent target for HN students moving to degree courses to receive advanced standing, and to set student number targets for the recruitment of HN (and other articulating) students, in its negotiation of outcome agreements with universities.

5. School reforms

School reform matters for fair access to higher education. A key element in policy for fair access has been the debate about school attainment. Is the attainment gap between students, and schools, getting wider or narrower? The answer to that question has never been fully resolved, mainly because of statistical ambiguities. But these ambiguities have not prevented critics asserting that the gap has been widening and more generally standards in schools have been slipping, a powerful (and damaging) critique given the significance attached to education in Scotland's historical imagination and current political conversation.

However, whatever has happened to the gap, it is clear that attainment levels are typically lower among students from more socially deprived backgrounds and in schools in more disadvantaged communities. The second question, then, is what policies universities should adopt in response to these lower levels of attainment in order to promote fair access. Should they focus on initiatives designed to raise these levels (now the predominant focus in England), through outreach activities or make reasonable adjustments to their entry standards, either by setting minimum entry requirements or developing alternative pathways through access courses, bridging courses and summer schools? In practice, of course, they have done both.

The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), first introduced in 2004 -almost two decades ago - divided secondary education into a junior, more generalist, phase and a senior, and more specialist phase and introduced a greater emphasis on the acquisition of skills. But from the start the CfE has been controversial. The fit between the new curriculum and qualifications and assessment has never been entirely clear, and this uneasy fit may be one reason for the presence of the attainment gap. Formal examinations continued to be favoured, until the enforced experiment in teacher assessment grades over the past two years (which the Scottish Qualification Authority attempted to make as much like examinations as possible). Critics, many in universities, also questioned the emphasis on skills at the expense, as they saw it, of subject knowledge.

Over the past year two important reports on schools in Scotland have been published. The first was the OECD report Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future published in June 2021. The conclusion of that report can be summarised as broad endorsement - but could do better. The second report, commissioned by the Government in the wake of the OECD report, was Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education, written by Professor Kenneth Muir from the University of the West of Scotland (and the Government's independent adviser on school reform), published in March 2022. This report had a broader remit. Many of its recommendations are concerned with reforming the architecture of the schools system - abolishing the SQA and handing its awarding functions to a new body, Qualifications Scotland, and its accrediting and regulatory functions to a new national agency for Scottish education, which would also absorb the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF); and establishing a new inspectorate body that would absorb the inspection work of Education Scotland. However, the Muir report also rehearsed the argument that the schools system was influenced too much by the SQA's 'high stakes' examinations.

For universities, and for fair access, these debates about school reforms matter - first, because any narrowing of the attainment gap as a result of an improved fit between curriculum and assessment would make it easier to achieve fair access (particularly on the part of more selective universities); secondly, because for many degree programmes adequate subject knowledge remains essential, despite the emphasis on skills, although university entry is not the highest goal of secondary education which has much wider purposes; and, finally, because grades, whether achieved in formal examinations or through continuous assessment, remain the currency in which university entry is denominated (again, especially in more selective universities), even when those grades are mitigated through MERs or complemented by other pathways.



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