Higher education - re-committing to Fair Access - a plan for recovery: annual report 2021

The fourth annual report of the Commissioner for Fair Access to higher education celebrates the progress that has been made and warns about the impact of the COVID-19 emergency, and the resulting setback to achieving fair access.

3. The Continuing Impact Of COVID-19

The impact of Covid-19 on fair access was the subject of an interim report published in December 2020. This report was based on a survey of all higher education institutions and colleges, and also agencies, sector bodies and other organisations. Its key message was that interruptions to schooling, campus closures and other restrictions meant that 'from those who have least the most was taken away' and consequently were a setback to achieving fair access.

The report identified the additional disadvantages suffered by potential applicants and students from more socially deprived backgrounds compared with their more advantaged peers. These included the following:

  • The impact of interruption of schooling, worst in areas with both high infection rates and high levels of social deprivation, on progression and motivation, which has possibly been compounded by the cancellation of Higher and National grade examinations and their replacement by teacher-assessed grades. As a result the attainment gap may have widened, and the future pool of suitable applicants from more deprived social backgrounds reduced.
  • The substitution of online for in-person outreach activities, which made it more difficult for institutions in particular to demystify higher education for potential applicants with little or no family experience as well as making good any deficits in skills and knowledge, although online outreach activities have enabled universities to reach more people.
  • More limited access to appropriate resources to access online learning – computers, connectivity and safe and dedicated study space at home. Despite the best efforts of institutions and help from the Government, a yawning 'digital divide' remains at both school and higher education level.
  • The curtailment of the wider student experience which, again, made it more difficulty for these students to make a successful transition from school to university (in contrast to their peers from more socially advantaged backgrounds with family experience of higher education). Opportunities for acquiring educational and cultural capital through interactions with other students, the peer experience, have also been curtailed.
  • Financial hardship and declining mental health, although they have affected all students, are likely to have the greatest impact on students from socially deprived backgrounds. They rely more on part-time jobs, the supply of which has been reduced by the pandemic, to pay their way through higher education. They may also experience more stressful home and family circumstances. An NUS Scotland survey found that 10 per cent of students still rely on food banks, and have become more dependent on commercial loans. There is particular concern about the limited availability of jobs over the summer on which students rely because they are not eligible for benefits.

The longer-term scarring effects of these, and other factors, on school attainment, access to higher education and continuation, success and graduate employment rates, will be revealed over the next three-to-five years. In the meantime the Covid-19 emergency, although easing, is not over. Three immediate issues arise.

A widening attainment gap in schools?

The first issue concerns a possible widening of the attainment gap – or, expressed more cautiously, a pause in the slow and limited progress that has been made towards narrowing the gap over the past five years. The difficulty of narrowing the attainment gap between the best and the worst performing pupils, and the best and worst performing schools, is well known. Even in normal times addressing social and economic inequalities, which are inter-generational and deeply rooted in communities, and their impact on pupil and school performance, has proved to be intractable. Despite substantial efforts made by the Government over the past decade, only modest progress has been made. A recent report from Audit Scotland highlighted the barriers to progress. Happily it is not within the competence of the Commissioner to comment on the wider political controversy about the attainment gap that has been generated.

But the persistence of the attainment gap is important in the context of the debate about fair access to higher education. Universities argue that this gap limits the number of suitably qualified applicants from more socially deprived communities, even when extra allowance is made by lowering the grades needed for entry by taking other factors into account (contextual admissions). Already before the Covid-19 emergency there was concern that the pool of potential applicants from SIMD20 areas was limited, leading to competition between universities for these applicants in order to meet targets. The implication was that, until the attainment gap was significantly narrowed and the pool of SIMD20 applicants increased, universities that in the past had only recruited small number of entrants from more socially deprived backgrounds would struggle to meet these targets, except by diverting these applicants from other institutions, 'post-1992' universities or colleges with a much stronger track record of widening access.

I have never been completely persuaded by this argument. Universities are not passive recipients at the end of a 'pipeline' of applicants from schools. Some universities continue to be perceived as inaccessible by potential applicants from less traditional backgrounds. They continue to recruit the majority of their students from the well-off middle classes and risk being labelled as 'not for people like us'. Universities have a responsibility for managing these perceptions, even when they are only half true. Nearly all universities also recruit primarily on the basis of achievement in public examinations, which reflect not simply individual performance but the type of school attended and more generally social and economic inequalities. This is acknowledged by the use of contextual admissions and adjusted, i.e. lower offers.

However, any widening of the attainment gap as a result of the Covid-19 emergency clearly has the potential to reduce the number of SIMD20 applicants, which in turn will mean that universities will have to work harder to meet their targets. Although it is too early to do more than speculate about what will happen to the attainment gap, there are clearly worrying signs. Corrective and compensatory action needs to be taken as a matter of urgency. A recent research briefing from the University of Strathclyde has examined the connection between school attendance and the poverty-related attainment gap. Corrective and compensatory action needs to be taken as a matter of urgency.

There is no clear evidence that the increased intake of first-year students in 2020-21, following the increase in the number of applicants who met their offers as a result of higher teacher-assessed grades, has disproportionately favoured entrants from any particular social group – for example, by middle-class applicants crowding out those from less advantaged backgrounds. But that is clearly a risk. At a minimum the social mix of 2020-21, and also 2021-22, entrants should be carefully monitored by institutions – as far as possible in real time – without waiting for the retrospective publication of national statistics. There is a case for requiring institutions to provide reassurance that the proportion of SIMD20/40 entrants is at least as high among students filling these additional places as it was in 2019-20.

My interim report showed that, in the view of most institutions, the movement of outreach activities online during the pandemic has made it more difficult to reach already hard-to-reach potential applicants. Despite this, there is a risk that reinstating these activities, and allowing for much greater in-person engagement, will be seen as a lower priority in the return to campus than apparently more mainstream academic activities. This would be a serious mistake. Not only do outreach activities need to be reinstated at the same time as mainstream academic work, additional resources are also needed to make up the ground that inevitably has been lost.

At least as great a concern as what has happened to pupils in their last years of secondary education coming up to higher education is what has happened to those in the early and middle years. For that reason, 'trajectory' has always been a better metaphor than 'pipeline'. There is a substantial risk that, as a result of school disruptions, 'digital poverty' and the cancellation of public examinations for two years running, younger secondary pupils from more deprived social backgrounds, or low-participation schools, will have found it more difficult to stay on course for potential entry to higher education. Most pupils, at primary as well as secondary level, have suffered from considerable stretches of 'lost time' in school that is likely to have damaged their cognitive and social development. Schools cannot simply 'make up' for this 'lost time', especially as they now have a heavier burden of assessment because of the cancellation of examinations.

The predominant official response to the Covid-19 emergency, at both UK and Scottish Government levels, has focused on controlling infection rates and minimising damage to the economy – perhaps at the expense of children's education. One price that may be paid is a setback to fair access in higher education. As we recover from the Covid-19 emergency, there is a strong case for adjusting these priorities and focusing on repairing the damage to education. Such a recovery plan for education cannot be a short-term fix, but must be a sustained programme of investment.

Contextual admissions

The second issue concerns the potential impact of the cancellation of National, Higher and Advanced Higher grade examinations, and the substitution of teacher-assessed grades, on how universities use contextual admissions to increase the number of entrants from more deprived social backgrounds.

Universities Scotland has been clear that the Covid-19 emergency has not been a time to tamper with the minimum entry requirements that all universities have now developed and published, and which are the key to taking other factors apart from examination grades into account in making offers to applicants – contextual admissions. It points out that MERs were established after detailed research about the skills and knowledge that students need to succeed in individual subjects, arguing that to admit applicants who have not demonstrated that skill and knowledge would be setting them up to fail.

That is a strong argument given the detailed work that has been undertaken on MERs and the need to win the support of the academic community for adjusted offers. But it is not necessarily a conclusive argument. University entry standards vary widely among universities and between subject, and also crucially have varied over time as demand for particular subjects and courses has increased or decreased. Even before MERs were set, there was often a significant gap between published entry grades and the grades achieved by entrants. Entry standards have never been, and never can be, set in stone. Universities also have a responsibility to adjust their own assessments about who can benefit from university education to changes not only in the rest of the education system but also wider society.

It has also been argued that, given the high degree of uncertainty (on whether or not public examinations would go ahead in schools, on alternative modes of assessing the performance of pupils, on demand for higher education places and the supply of funded places) there is merit in maintaining MERs as a fixed point. Again, this is a strong, although not a conclusive, argument. MERs inevitably take examination grades as givens, a kind of 'gold standard' – in other words, they assume, perhaps hopefully, that these grades are reliable and consistent over time. In fact, of course, examination grades are influenced by a wide range of contextual factors – family background, peer expectations, the school attended and so on. It is the recognition of these contextual factors that influence the performance of individual pupils which justifies the use of adjusted offers and other forms of contextual admissions.

The substitution of teacher-assessed grades has had a number of effects.

  • The first and most obvious that grades have been higher, leading to an increase in the number of qualified applicants. This has posed an immediate capacity challenge to universities. Nearly all admitted more students to the first year in 2020-21, because the increase in grades led to more qualified applicants. There will be a repeat this year, 2021-22. As a result, most universities will soon have two over-large age cohorts which will further strain capacity. There is currently no guarantee that additional funded places will be provided. Without these extra places the prospect of under-funded third and fourth years will open up.
  • The second is that it has called into question the reliability, and in particular the consistency over time, of grades. A particular difficulty will arise in 2022 and subsequent years when, presumably, public examinations are reinstated. Will it be acceptable simply to remove the alleged inflated grades assessed by teachers and revert to the pre-Covid profile of grades?
  • The third is that it has drawn attention to the contextual factors that have always influenced examination grades, even though the SQA guidance is clear that grades must be based on demonstrated achievement and not take into account personal circumstances (which is where contextual admissions comes in).

As a result, it is no longer possible to treat the grades achieved by applicants as a fixed point, or 'gold standard'. In practice, of course, universities have always contextualised their admissions, with the most important contextual element being the calibration of entry grades to fill the number of available places.

There are two further issues:

1. The SQA guidance is clear: grades must reflect achievement not personal circumstances. It is difficult to see what other guidance an examination body could have given. But the implications are serious. In effect, teachers are being asked to ignore school interruptions and all the other negative effects of the Covid-19 emergency in determining the grades they give. This means that, if teachers follow the SQA guidance (which in human terms may be difficult), young people from more deprived communities, who have suffered disproportionately from these negative effects, will be further disadvantaged. The responsibility then passes to universities to take full account of the unequal impact of the Covid-19 emergency in their contextual admissions policies, which may be difficult to reconcile with holding the line on MERs. The increase in overall applications, and subsequent pressure on places and capacity may mask but it does not remove that responsibility.

2. The evidence on which teachers have based their assessed grades has varied. In some schools pupils have, in effect, taken a series of tests closely approximating to examinations. In other schools grades have been informed more by teachers' judgments of the achievements of learners. Much of the evidence for these differences of approach between schools is anecdotal. But it is not hard to imagine that schools that have suffered the least disruption, with comparatively few pupils forced to isolate and more pupils who are better equipped to take advantage of online learning, have options that were not open to schools without these advantages. Nor is it hard to imagine that their contrasting social profiles in SIMD terms. Even when all-but-exams have been used by schools to inform teacher-assessed grades, school interruptions, the need to isolate, limited access to IT and so on, which disproportionately impact on pupils from more deprived backgrounds, mean that there has been very far from a level playing field in terms of access to learning. As a result the consistency of teacher-assessed grades must be in doubt. They cannot simply be substituted in a mechanical way for examination results – although admission staff in universities have little option but to do so in the short run. This poses a serious challenge, and dilemma, to how universities use MERs and contextual admissions, and adds to the general uncertainty about admissions.

In conclusion two points should be emphasised:

  • First, any uplift for SIMD20 and other disadvantaged applicants as a result of higher teacher-assessed grades is unlikely to compensate fully for the detriment they have suffered because their education has suffered greater interruption as a result of Covid-19.
  • Second, teacher-assessed grades last year were more generous, leading to applicants being offered places who would have been denied places in earlier years. Yet there is no clear evidence that there has been a corresponding increase in non-continuation rates.

Both make the case for a more generous, and ambitious, use of minimum entry requirements – more perhaps in the spirit of the 'access thresholds' recommended in the COWA report.

The shape of the next academic year

The third issue concerns the likely shape of the next academic year. Will there be a repeat of the restrictions in the current academic year, with the need for rapid improvisation? Although possible, that would be a worse-case scenario, given the progress made towards vaccinating the population. Will there be a fairly complete return to normal? Again, unlikely, if only because Covid-19 is likely to become an endemic disease. Also the lessons learnt, and experience gained, (for example in online and blended learning) since March 2020 cannot and should not be unlearnt or forgotten. Or something in-between?

Universities, quite reasonably, are anticipating some degree of a 'return to normal' in the next academic year, 2021-22. However, a full return to a pre-pandemic pattern is likely to be impossible, for two main reasons.

Public health restrictions

The first is that some public health restrictions will continue, even if the progress towards vaccinating large sections of the population is maintained. There are currently no plans to vaccinate all children, although some experts have recommended those aged 12 and over should be vaccinated, and young adults may not be offered vaccinations until the autumn. Both the Scottish Government and the UK Government (with regard to England), have been sensitive to what they regard as the propensity of students to spread Covid-19 infections among themselves and in their host communities. So a cautious approach has been adopted to reopening campuses. In any case priority has been given to keeping schools open. Some universities have already experienced significant outbreaks of infections. These restrictions could even be tightened if there is any sign of a third wave fueled by new variants of coronavirus later in the year, as many epidemiologists and others expect.

Higher education institutions accept that there will be no immediate return to large lectures. However, they anticipate class sizes of up to 35, with an absolute maximum of 50 – in effect, small lectures. The hope is that these can be safely managed through ventilation and intensive cleaning of spaces and enforcing mask wearing and hand washing. However, these are still large groups, which could only be accommodated if the current guidance on social distancing of 2-metres-plus rule is relaxed to 1-metre-plus (or removed entirely). Institutions may also need to play a role in testing-and-tracing and also vaccinations because students, who have been vaccinated initially at home, will require second doses on campus. Universities Scotland argues that there is a strong case for exempting universities from any remaining rules on social distancing, on the grounds that they are, to some extent, closed communities. Universities Scotland has also highlighted the particular issues about quarantining that arise in the case of international students, arguing they should be allowed to self-isolate on secure accommodation on campus where they can more easily access pastoral and academic support.

Institutions clearly need to make assumptions now on which the complex task of planning timetables for the next academic year can be based. But the assumptions now being made are optimistic in the sense they are predicated on no significant resurgence of infections when lock-down is eased over the summer. They are also based on a traditional view of the typical student: first, that they are young, full-time and residential rather than older or with family responsibilities or part-time; second, that all students will have approximately equal digital access to lectures that will now be delivered online, which has certainly not been the case in the current academic years; and third, that universities are 'closed' communities, when many students in some institutions are commuter students living at home and most live, and circulate freely, in their wider communities.

The pivot to online learning

Because some public health restrictions may remain in force into, and probably throughout, the 2021-22 academic year there is unlikely to be an immediate return to large lectures. However, the shift to online and blended learning has not simply been a matter of necessity; it may also be a matter of choice. There is a view that the Covid-19 emergency has kick-started a long overdue revolution in the ways that students learn. The argument is that blended learning fits in better with contemporary student preferences and life-styles – for example, their familiarity with the use of social media and often their need to have part-time jobs. Blended learning may also be attractive to university managers because it may appear, perhaps mistakenly, to be more cost-effective and offer economies-of-scale. This report is not the place to enter into these larger arguments, except to say that successive lockdowns and interruptions may have fueled a powerful nostalgia for more traditional forms of student learning which emphasise face-to-face teaching. The impact of the Covid-19 emergency, therefore, may be Janus-faced – stimulating innovation but also encouraging nostalgia.

If the pivot to blended learning leads to a lower 'footfall' on campus, it could have serious consequences for fair access. The evidence of the Covid-19 emergency has been that students from more socially deprived backgrounds have suffered most from university and college closures – or even semi-closures.

  • First, the experience of being on campus is especially important for students who cannot draw on family experience to enable them to make a successful transition to higher education, and particularly to universities that have previously seemed remote from their world.
  • Second, a shared campus experience by students is a social equaliser, in the same way as school attendance.
  • Third, campus offers an alternative space to those students who come from more crowded, even chaotic, homes – in contrast to the more privileged homes of middle-class students (for whom, arguably, the campus experience is less crucial, although still of course highly desirable and formative).
  • Fourth, students from more deprived backgrounds have suffered from greater digital poverty, and that imbalance will continue despite the best efforts of institutions and the Government. The funds made available by the Government during the immediate Covid-19 emergency to buy laptops and more generally address digital poverty have been used up. But, if there is a permanent shift towards online learning, if only to replace large lectures, there will be a continuing need to ensure all students have equal digital access.
  • Fifth, an important part of the student experience is provided by interactions with other students, which are predicated on in-person contact. These peer contacts are important for effective learning.
  • Sixth, these peer contacts are probably even more important in terms of student support, which is particularly necessary for students without a strong hinterland in higher education.
  • Seventh, much of this peer support is provided by clubs and societies, some of which have been specifically targeted towards groups such as mature students. But many of these clubs and societies have been in, in effect, a state of hibernation over the past academic year. Students have been unable to participate directly in the clubs and societies. So it has been more difficult for clubs and societies to renew their memberships, and the normal transition processes such as the changing of officers have not been possible. Not only may it be difficult to revive these clubs and societies, but they could find it more difficult to flourish in a more online environment.

It is essential that the lessons of the past academic year are learnt in planning for the next academic year. Any return-to-(near-)normal plans need to be fair-access proofed. One approach might be to include socio-economic disadvantage and care experience in equality impact statements. It would then be a statutory requirement to assess the impact of any new policies and practices on this more broadly defined equality.


Email: karen.frew@gov.scot

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