Higher education - renewing the alliance for fair access: annual report 2024

The sixth annual report of the Commissioner for Fair Access concludes that much has already been achieved in delivering fair access to higher education in Scotland, but Professor John H. McKendrick considers how the framework for promoting fair access can be strengthened.

1. Fair Access and Scotland's National Purpose

" The proportion of entrants to higher education from our most deprived areas is now at its highest-ever level, but I do not think that we are yet doing well enough. We still have a situation in which the most deprived fifth of our communities supply only one seventh of our university undergraduates … I want us to be bolder in our aspirations. I am setting the Government and our universities the challenging long-term target of eradicating inequality in access to higher education. I want us to determine now that by the time a child who is born today in one of our most deprived communities leaves school, he or she will have the same chance of going to university as a child who is born in one of our least deprived communities. That means that we would expect at least 20 per cent of university entrants to come from the most deprived 20 per cent of the population."

Nicola Sturgeon (November 26th, 2014)[1]

" … overall and overwhelmingly, I am proud of what has been achieved. … Widening access to higher education, with a record number of young people from backgrounds like mine now going to university."

Nicola Sturgeon (March 23rd, 2023)[2]

" As the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, working with my Cabinet colleagues, I commit that by 2026 I will have … [M]et our interim target of 18% of full-time first degree entrants to universities coming from the most deprived communities in Scotland."

Jenny Gilruth, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (April 18th, 2023)[3]

A decade ago, Nicola Sturgeon, the then First Minister, outlined an ambition to work toward what would come to be known as fair access to higher education in Scotland. In her resignation speech to Parliament nine years later, prominent among the list of achievements of which she was "overwhelmingly proud" was widening access to higher education. Although Humza Yousaf, the new First Minister, made no specific reference to widening access when introducing 'a fresh start for Scotland' in April 2023,[4] the ambitions that underpin the fair access agenda – equality, opportunity, community – are those which were headlined in his reset for government.[5] Furthermore, in this reset for education, the commitment to continue working to achieve fair access was listed among long list of priority actions by Jenny Gilruth, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

Thus, political commitment to fair access was re-affirmed in 2023, although this might be characterised as a quiet re-affirmation, as opposed to the headlining of a priority.

It should be acknowledged, as my predecessor did in the introduction to Maintaining Momentum Toward Fair Access,[6] that the pursuit of fair access in higher education takes place in a very different societal and economic context from when it was first conceived. To the challenges presented by the legacy effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, must now be added the challenging fiscal climate,[7] with its implications for the Scottish Budget.[8] The commitment of the Scottish Government to a 'social contract' with the Scottish people[9] provides some re-assurance that funding decisions will not undermine the fair access agenda. Indeed, there is explicit commitment in Annex A5 of the Scottish Budget to work toward "driving forward our commitment for Widening Access" and providing "vital financial support to students to support them in completing their studies in the face of significant cost of living pressures".[10] Although the significant uplift in funds for student support is welcome,[11] less so is the real-term reduction in funds for the Scottish Funding Council[12].

We should also recognise that child poverty[13] (and poverty among adults of working-age[14]) and the poverty-related attainment gap[15] persist at unacceptably high levels, despite the good intentions to work toward reduction, if not eradication.[16] Achieving fair access targets is predicated, at least in part, on progress in reducing child poverty and improving the qualifications at SCQF Level 6 of adults and children experiencing poverty.

My predecessor was concerned with the prospect of dissenting voices undermining wider public support for the fair access agenda.[17] Although some question the very principle of social mobility,[18] it is more commonplace to question the mechanics of how fair access is to be achieved: sometimes, this is expressed in terms of resourcing,[19] but more commonly it is criticised on the grounds that less disadvantaged groups will be squeezed out of universities. I have received some personal communication on this matter from concerned individuals and groups. It was also the subject of public[20] and political debate[21] early in 2023 in relation to evidence that nine courses at the University of Edinburgh had their places filled solely by pupils from less socio-economically advantaged backgrounds. I conclude this introduction with the re-assurance that I am mindful of these concerns, which I address more fully in the body of this report.

I consider five issues in this report. First, I review what has been achieved so far through fair access work (Fair access in Scotland: A qualified celebration). Next, I reflect on the key ideas that frame fair access work (Back to basics: the nature of fair access). The recent revisioning of education in Scotland is considered in 2023: a year of review for renewal. My thoughts on what must be done are outlined in Emergent issues: renewing the alliance for fair access. Finally, I conclude by outlining my priorities for 2024.


Email: Clara.Pirie@gov.scot

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