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.


The progress towards fair(er) access to higher education since the report of the Commission on Widening Access has been both impressive and sustained. Although the effects of medium and longer-term scarring as a result of Covid have yet to reveal themselves fully, it is reasonable to expect the momentum generated during the past six years to roll forward.

Of greater concern, perhaps, is the squeeze on incomes as a result of inflation, geopolitical turbulence (especially, but not exclusively the invasion of Ukraine) and post-Brexit drag on economic performance. There is a risk that this cost-of-living crisis will take over from Covid, in its disproportionate effect on disadvantaged individuals and deprived communities. But, once again, fair access has been so strongly lodged in the priorities of higher education institutions that is difficult to imagine it being dislodged.

So, grounds for hope and optimism.

However, despite the progress made towards making access to higher education fairer, the goal of fair access is very far from being achieved. To be direct, access to post-school education remains deeply unfair. For SIMD20 school leavers, going on to higher education remains a minority experience; fewer than a third go to university. For the least disadvantaged school leavers, those living in SIMD80 areas, participation in higher education is a majority experience; two-thirds take that route. Even if the measure of disadvantage were take-up of FSMs rather than SIMD, that pattern of inequality would be unlikely to change substantially. In the case of further education, the proportions are reversed. The proportion of SIMD20 school leavers going to college is more than twice the proportion of SIMD80 leavers. Scotland's class structure is etched in these different post-school destinations.

So grounds for pessimism.

The cautious optimism, therefore, that the impressive progress towards fairer access can and will be sustained, despite Covid and despite the cost-of-living crisis, must be seen in the wider context of deeply entrenched inequalities in society. In the context of racism, the word would not be 'entrenched' but 'institutional'. The challenge is to make sense of these apparently contradictory conclusions - optimism arising from the satisfaction that so much has been achieved, and pessimism arising from the fear that the educational disadvantage rooted in intractable social inequalities will be almost impossible to root out.

If the key task of fair access is just to make it easier for potentially motivated and talented individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in higher education, with universities pursuing outreach activities to identify these individuals, encouraging applications from them, providing academic and pastoral support and making limited adjustments in their own entry requirements, fair access is working. Seen in this light, universities have been successful in moving the dial on access, as has been demonstrated in their ability to meet national and institutional targets.

Clearly enabling success on the part of individuals is a condition of working towards fairer access to higher education. But is it a sufficient condition - in other words, is that all fair access amounts to? - or is it a necessary condition - in other words, one element within a wider campaign for social justice?

My conclusion based on five years as Commissioner for Fair Access is that, if fair access is ever to be substantially achieved (which is perhaps more than hitting even the ambitious 20 percent target set by the First Minister), is that enabling individual success is a necessary but not a completely sufficient condition. It cannot be the end of the story - for two reasons.

  • First, this limited view of the scope of fair access is based on a deficit model - and the deficiencies are largely those of potential applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. These deficiencies are academic (lower levels of attainment) and financial (family poverty) but also social and cultural (limited aspirations and lack of insights into the potential of a university education). In contrast, any deficiencies on the part of institutions are limited. Universities are unwilling and unable significantly to adjust their expectations of students in terms of necessary skills and prior subject knowledge, without compromising academic standards. They are also reluctant, for good and understandable reasons, to dilute the wider experience of being a student, despite lurking concern that this experience may embody cultural assumptions that could be described as 'middle class'. For these reasons, it is the disadvantaged students who must be budged. Universities themselves need not do much budging.
  • Second, fair access to higher education is closely linked to the idea of social mobility. But, in a society that over the past generation has been becoming more - not less - unequal, social mobility operates within strict limits. An important goal of higher education is to educate young people to fill professional jobs. That is close to being defined as the only goal of higher education by the Office for Students in England in its new approach to access and participation. But, whether the focus is narrowly on professional jobs or more broadly on 'social mobility', the effects are similar. Institutions produce graduates who will occupy the top two categories in the socio-economic classification of occupations, the professional and managerial classes. In the case of socially disadvantaged students that often means they are distanced from the deprived communities in which they are brought up, potentially entrenching that deprivation even more deeply among those left behind. In contrast, further education fulfils a different role. Colleges are in and of their communities.

These are arguments for academic discussion and political debate. They need to be refined in terms of different levels of course, subject and type of institution. But in the context of the policy and practice of fair access, these arguments suggest that a limited view of what needs to be done, focused almost entirely on recruiting more individuals from disadvantaged groups (however they are defined - SIMD or some other measure) into universities by addressing (and possibly making modest allowance for) their individual deficiencies, will always struggle to produce truly fair access to higher education. As Commissioner for Fair Access, I have been asked to take a 'whole system' approach to fair access, looking back into schools and forward to employment. Perhaps something wider still is needed, a 'whole society' approach, recognising the need to address the mutually reinforcing elements of deprivation rather than supposing that narrower educational interventions alone can overcome that compelling logic.



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