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.

4. Other Issues

Post-qualification admissions

Earlier this year the UK Department of Education opened a consultation on admissions reforms. Among the motives for this review, heavily influenced by a recent report from the Sutton Trust, appears to have been, paradoxically, the concern of UK/English education minsters about the use of 'unconditional' conditional offers, ie firm offers regardless of subsequent exam grades.

Although the Department's responsibility is confined to education in England, the consultation has the potential to spill out and effect higher education admissions across the whole of the UK because it is a UK-wide system. Also there is considerable cross-border traffic. Each year 180,000 applicants in one UK nation apply for places in institutions in another UK country.

However, attempts to move away from the present admissions system that relies heavily on conditional offers, which are then confirmed when exam results are known, are long-standing. A review group chaired by Steven Schwarz produced a report as long ago as 2004 and another attempt was made in 2011. Universities UK recently published a Fair Admissions Review. In April the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) also published its own model for post-qualification admissions.

UCAS rejects the idea of a totally post-qualification admissions system, which would also inevitably require a radical change in the shape of the academic year with a January rather than September/October start. It emphasises the benefits of an extended engagement between applicants and institutions, pointing out that applicants with a shorter engagement (notably those admitted through the summer rush of Clearing) are more likely to drop out. In addition there is a risk that a foreshortened engagement period would focus even more attention on exam grades, and leave less time for other contextual factors to be taken into account to the detriment of applicants from more deprived backgrounds.

This is much more an English, Welsh and Northern Irish than a Scottish problem.

  • One of the arguments made in the Sutton Trust report, that potential applicants from more deprived backgrounds are especially disadvantaged by the current conditional offers system, does not apply in Scotland where contextual admissions are firmly established and all universities publish MERs.
  • Far fewer conditional offers are made in Scotland because most applicants have taken Highers in S5 and these grades are already known when they make their UCAS applications and institutions make offers. Only in the case of Highers and Advanced Highers taken in S6 does the need for conditional offers arise.
  • In contrast almost all offers in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland, are conditional on grades to be achieved in A-level examinations yet to be taken.
  • English-style conditional offers do have to be made to the significant number of applicants, and entrants, in Scottish universities (especially at Edinburgh and St Andrews), who have taken A levels and come from other parts of the UK.
  • Any changes in the timing of the admissions cycle as a result of a move to post-qualification admissions could also have implications for the admission of international students.

It is clearly important to avoid any unintended consequences of, or collateral damage to, how admissions currently work in Scotland as a result of solutions to solve an essentially English problem – and the problem as defined by current UK education ministers. However unlikely, a shift to a January start for the academic year, the most radical option, would be disproportionate and therefore unacceptable. Also it would also be detrimental to the competitiveness of Scottish, and UK, higher education in terms of international student recruitment.

There might also be collateral effects that directly, and adversely, impact on potential applicants from more socially deprived backgrounds:

  • too strong a focus on post-qualifications admissions, even post-qualification offers, might discourage S5 pupils already with grades continuing in S6 to take Advanced Highers, which are essential for entry to some high-demand courses like medicine;
  • there is also a danger that admissions reform, in particular a foreshortened or diluted engagement between applicants and institutions, to perhaps a maximum of 10 weeks between August and October compared with 6 months or more currently, could undermine contextual admissions – and therefore fair access;
  • none of the processes used by universities to meet the needs of disadvantaged students, whether summer schools to make good knowledge deficits, or disability assessments, can easily be crammed into a short period.

Framework for Fair Access

The establishment of a Framework for Fair Access designed to spread through good practice was recommended in the COWA report. It was launched in May 2019 less than a year before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. As designed the Framework had two pillars: a toolkit comprising a website on which evaluations of various initiatives could be posted in order to highlight which had been most effective; and the formation of Scotland's Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP) to provide a focus for those working in colleges, universities and other organisations in the field of widening access. Both pillars were initially funded by short-term grants from the SFC.

Mainly because of the pandemic it has proved to be difficult after the initial contract period to find a contractor willing to keep the toolkit updated, although the same conditions have proved the value of SCAPP which has more than fulfilled its promise as a focus for access and participation practitioners. The issue of the financial sustainability of the Framework was raised in my last Annual Report. No action has been taken – for understandable reasons given the urgency of the challenges posed by the Covid-19 emergency. But action must now be taken if the Framework is not to wither away – through a failure to update the toolkit by populating it with evaluations of new initiatives, and to support the valuable work on SCAPP which has proved its worth during the pandemic.

Short-term non-core funding from the SFC, designed essentially to fund specific projects, cannot be a suitable way to fund what is designed to be a key feature in the access landscape in Scotland and, by extension, a key priority in terms of public policy. A sustainable longer-term model of hybrid funding needs to be developed as a matter of urgency, combining three elements.

  • First, a membership fee paid by institutions (and other organisations). Although it would probably be going too far at this stage, when the full potential of the Framework has not yet been realised, to make this is a compulsory subscription, membership fees would be strongly encouraged – perhaps by the SFC in its guidance to institutions.
  • Second, some element of project-type funding, whether from the Government, SFC or charitable bodies such as the Robertson Trust. Such funding would be appropriate for new initiatives being developed under the umbrella of the Framework.
  • Third, the possibility of charging for specific services should be explored. These might include kite-marks (for institutions) and professional accreditation (in the case of individuals), tailored development activities and events. However, this third element is likely to make only a small contribution to the funding of the Framework, certainly in the early years.

There also need to be changes in the way that the Framework is organised and governed. At present there is a Framework Governance Group, predominantly made up of access and participation practitioners but chaired by the Commissioner for Fair Access and attended by officials of the Scottish Government. SCAPP has its own steering group, although there is a considerable overlap of membership. However, the two pillars remain to some extent distinct.

In my view they should be brought much closer together, by making SCAPP responsible for the toolkit. This would have two advantages. First, practitioners are much the best placed to keep the toolkit updated by populating it with evaluations of good practice, for which they themselves are responsible. Practitioners are also best qualified to determine which access initiatives work best, either as a result of independent evaluation but also peer assessment. Second, if SCAPP were given the responsible for this key task, the case for long-term public funding would be strengthened. As this would be a public responsibility involving public funding, it would be appropriate to maintain the Framework Governance Group alongside the SCAPP steering group to ensure accountability.


Email: karen.frew@gov.scot

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