This is my fourth Annual Report as Commissioner for Fair Access. It has two core messages.
- The first is a celebration of the progress that has been made towards fairer access to higher education. To an extent that certainly could not have been imagined 10 years ago, or perhaps even five year ago, not only is fair access accepted as higher education, but it is now firmly lodged high on the list of priorities of those universities and other higher education institutions that traditionally have recruited the bulk of their students from more advantaged social groups. In the case of colleges and other universities, of course, widening access has always been central to their missions.
- The second is a warning. The impact of the Covid-19 emergency, and of the consequent public health and institutional restrictions, without question represents a setback to achieving fair access. As I wrote in my interim report at the end of last year, from those who had least the most has been taken away. More socially deprived communities have suffered worse than more prosperous communities on almost every dimension – infections and deaths, economic dislocation, school disruption. Students from these communities have experienced more limited access to online learning, more financial hardship and (perhaps) worst mental health. At the same time institutions have found it more difficult to engage with them because of public health restrictions. The Government is also likely to focus most of its attention over the next three or four years on economic recovery. As collateral damage fair access may have a lower priority. Institutions too, in particular those universities that have come most recently to accept the central importance of fair access, face other challenges – financial pressures, coping with Brexit and resetting their international agendas. So there is a present danger that just when fair access has suffered an inevitable setback and therefore the need to reassert its primacy in public policy, it will face increasing competition from other priorities.
This report is divided into three main sections
The Commission on Widening Participation (COWA) in its final report in March 2016 recommended that the Government should report on progress towards meeting its recommendations within 12 months and that 'thereafter, progress towards equal access should be reported on annually by the Commissioner for Fair Access'. I have tried to do this in each of my Annual Reports. In practice the Government has continued to produce periodic reports on progress, mainly in the form of reports to the Access Delivery Group chaired by the Minister (although because of the Covid-19 emergency the group has not met since 2019). The Scottish Funding Council also published a valuable Report on Widening Access on an annual basis.
The Commission on Widening Access
The current drive to achieve fair access has its roots in the pledge made by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that by 2030, 20 per cent of entrants to university should come from the 20 per cent most deprived communities in Scotland, in other words, a truly level playing field, which was then incorporated in the Programme for Government. This drive was given its present focus, and priority and urgency, by the work of the Commission on Widening Access chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, which was established by the Government in 2014 and reported in 2016. This year is the fifth anniversary of COWA's final report. I have taken advantage of that anniversary to offer my own assessment of the progress that has been made to implementing its 34 recommendations, and also to discuss the ways the context, and therefore, agenda may have changed; and whether there is a need to adjust any of these recommendations or add new ones.
The impact of Covid-19
Although the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, for the moment, has passed (in Scotland and the wider UK, although not in the world), its consequences will be with us for many years to come – in terms of the scarring of not only the economy but also of society, and the lives of individuals. I published an interim report on the impact of Covid-19 on fair access in December 2020, based on detailed responses from colleges, universities, agencies and sectoral and other organisations. In the report I have focused on three particular issues: (i) the potential impact on the attainment gap in schools, and the supply of qualified applicants; (ii) the implications of the cancellation of public examinations – Nationals, Highers and Advanced Higher – and the substitution of teacher-assessed grades, on contextual admissions policies in universities; and (iii) the likely shape of the next academic year, and the impact of any continuing restrictions on fair access.
In a final miscellaneous section a number of more specific issues are covered: (i) any implications for fair access in Scotland of the movement towards a different admissions system across the UK, which has been driven from England; and (ii) the sustainability of the Scottish Framework for Fair Access and the Scotland's Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP).