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.

4. 2023: A Year of Review for Renewal

2023 was an exceptional year for thinking through the future of (higher) education in Scotland. Three reports were published, each of which has implications for the fair access agenda, i.e., Purpose and Principles for Post-school Education by the Scottish Government, and two reports commissioned by the same – Fit for the Future: developing a post-school learning system to fuel economic transformation/ Skills Delivery Landscape Review (the Withers review) and It's Our Future: Report of the Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment (the Hayward report). We also reflect on an economic review completed in 2023 that has implications for the fair access agenda.

Purpose and Principles for Post-school Education

In June 2023, the Scottish Government published a suite of outputs from its Purpose and Principles work,[114] which had the aim of providing an overarching framework that sets the policy direction and shapes delivery".[115]

There is much in Purpose and Principles that gives confidence that fair access will remain central to what the Scottish Government hopes to achieve through higher education. This is most clear in the opening objectives outlined by the Minister for Higher and Further Education on the issue of equality:[116]

That opportunities are available to all based on their ability to learn and that learning presents a pathway out of poverty. That learners who need it most are financially supported to complete their chosen pathway. That we work hard so that those who face the greatest barriers to accessing opportunities are supported and encouraged to do so, based on a genuine understanding of what they need to succeed and, that we use the strength of our social research on poverty and society to further support this work.

Thereafter, many of the system outcomes that are specified are relevant to the fair access agenda:[117]

  • Collaboration across the post-school system is pursued proactively with shared values and a common purpose. (in Transparent, Resilient and Trusted)
  • The introduction to Supportive and Equitable is described as "People are supported throughout their learning journey, particularly those who need it most".
  • The public funding system for student support is perceived as fair, transparent, and accessible by learners, providers, and employers. (Supportive and Equitable)
  • Learners have access to holistic, person-centred support, empowering them to access, sustain and complete their learning. (Supportive and Equitable)
  • The system supports a culture of lifelong learning with a 'no wrong door' approach, where learners have equity of access and opportunity to fulfil their interests and potential. (in High quality)
  • Learners, no matter their background or prior attainment, can develop skills to enter and progress in good quality employment and/or realise their potential. (in Agile and responsive)

Furthermore, many of the 37 short-term outcomes (1-3 years),[118] 32 medium-term outcomes (4-7 years)[119] and 14 long-term outcomes (8+ years)[120] pertain to fair access. For example:

  • Providers, policymakers, and delivery partners can access data to allow efficient, timely and equitable reporting on outcomes across the post-school system. (medium-term outcome in Transparent, resilient and trusted).
  • Provider approaches and national targets to widen access and encourage retention are aligned with each other and fit for purpose (short-term outcome in Supportive and equitable).
  • The system supports a culture of lifelong learning with a 'no wrong door' approach, where learners have equity of access and opportunity to fulfil their interests and potential (long-term outcome in High quality)
  • Learners understand the skills they need to access post-graduation opportunities, including further study, work, and entrepreneurship (short-term outcome in Globally respected).
  • Learners, no matter their background or prior attainment, can develop skills to enter and progress in good quality employment and/or realise their potential (long-term outcome in Agile and responsive).

However, there will be a need to monitor how these principles are realised in practice:[121]

For colleges, universities and providers this means greater flexibility in how institutions use the investment that is available and autonomy to set ambitious, stretch targets for delivery, rooted in individual purpose, mission, and context, but with greater accountability for their contribution to Scotland's economy and society at home and abroad".

There is a need to ensure that this admirable aspiration to strengthen institutional autonomy does not undermine current commitments to enhance fair access in each Scottish HEI.

Fit for the Future: developing a post-school learning system to fuel economic transformation/ Skills Delivery Landscape Review - The Withers Review

In May 2023, the Scottish Government published Fit for the Future,[122] Alan Withers' independent review of the skills delivery landscape in Scotland. As in the Purpose and Principles review, there is explicit commitment to the fair access agenda, evident both in terms of how success is defined and within one of the recommendations for action:

  • Success: "my interpretation of success is that: Every individual in Scotland has equitable access to the learning opportunities required to reach a positive destination in their working life, collectively ensuring Scotland's economy and society can flourish".[123]
  • Recommendation 5: embedding commitments to equalities, widening access and fair work within the delivery system.[124]

Beyond this explicit support, sentiments are expressed that re-affirm points made within this report and previous reports of the Commissioner for Fair Access: imploring simplification[125] and universal access[126] to information to all options that are available in post-school education; ensuring that funding – lack of, and lack of access to, is not a disincentive to anyone pursuing post-school education;[127] establishing multi-year funding assumptions and commitments to assist with planning and to encourage partnership working; [128] and seeking equity for those who wish to pursue studies on a part-time basis.[129]

Although there is much alignment and shared sense of purpose between the work and recommendations of Fit for Purpose and the Commissioner for Fair Access (past and present), there may be some divergence of opinion with regards to the role of national targets. It is asserted that:[130]

There is a lack of coherent measurement of quality and impact across the landscape as a whole, national targets that constrain flexibility and resources that are diverted to managing conflicts or satisfying bureaucratic processes.

I would concur that adverse unintended consequences of pursuing national targets are to be avoided. However, I am strongly in favour of maintaining the national target for fair access, as this has been a key asset in driving forward progress in fair access since CoWA and continues to serve a useful purpose in this regard.

It's Our Future: Report of the Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment - The Hayward Report

In June 2023, the Scottish Government published It's Our Future,[131] the Independent Review Group's (led by Professor Louise Hayward) appraisal of, and blueprint for, the future of qualifications and assessment in Scotland. If implemented as recommended, the Scottish Diploma o Achievement would commence within the timeframe for achieving the CoWA 2030 target.[132]

Universities Scotland's Learning and Teaching Group welcomed the report,[133] which proposed the introduction of a Scottish Diploma of Achievement, comprising programmes of learning (qualifications), project learning and a personal pathway.

Many aspects of what is proposed are consistent with some of the practice that is integral to fair access and the work of the National Schools Programme, and the independent work of universities in widening access and recruitment, e.g., encouraging career reflection in the Personal Pathway,[134] mentoring to inform post-school choices,[135] and the acknowledgement that design must ensure that disadvantage is not compounded by the introduction of a new system.[136] Indeed, a strong position was adopted that opportunities must be regarded as entitlements and, in response to consultation responses, the proposal for the Personal Pathway was amended to shift the emphasis away from the number of experiences the learner has undertaken toward reflection on what an individual has learned through an experience.[137]

As for Fit for Purpose, there was also much alignment and shared sense of purpose between the work and recommendations of It's Our Future and the Commissioner for Fair Access (past and present). For example, the suggestion that the learner would own their profile, which should be available digitally[138] is consistent with, and would be facilitated by, long-standing call by the Commissioner for a single student identifier; as is the call for greater consistency in the application of the SCQF.[139]

On the other hand, there is need to reflect at greater length on some issues. For example, although there is good reason to explain the recommendation that Programmes for Learning is the only component to be assessed,[140] there is a risk that this defaults to the component that matters most (perhaps reinforced by the recommendation that time devoted to this is not to be reduced[141]) and that the high-stakes culture[142] of the current system is not fully displaced. Similarly, there is an implicit assumption that six years of schooling should be the norm, with the inherent risk of duplicating learning at SCQF7[143] without wider system change. Although the concept of Project Learning was warmly welcomed, it was acknowledged that the idea of such learning has been valued and envisaged since the outset of the Curriculum for Excellence.[144] Finally, notwithstanding the sensitivity to disadvantage that is shown throughout, there is a need for stronger recognition that provision of opportunity does not determine that everyone is in a position to avail themselves of these.

The critical issue for fair access is the need to consider the implications for contextualised admissions, which has been a key vehicle for promoting fair access to higher education in Scotland. Although there is no reason why contextualised admissions could not continue to be applied to Programmes of Learning, it is less clear how this could be achieved for Project Learning and Personal Pathways. It is vital that the same principle is applied if all three components are to attain the status of equal partners in determining access to post-school opportunities.

Scotland's National Strategy for Economic Transformation

The wider purpose of education is central to the thinking of those who were tasked with revisioning the future of education in Scotland. However, it is not always apparent that this wider purpose of the education, let alone the fair access agenda in higher education, is fully acknowledged by those outside education.

The first annual report on Scotland's National Strategy for Economic Transformation[145] acknowledged the value of some of the work being undertaken within higher education to support Scotland's economic development. For example, reference was made to: the pilot project in South West Scotland through which the University of the West of Scotland was working with Dumfries and Galloway College and Dumfries and Galloway Council to develop integrated degree pathways in Cyber Security and Business for senior phase learners in the region (p.14); the research undertaken by the University of Strathclyde in defining green jobs (p.14); and the leadership by University of Strathclyde staff in establishing a New Deal for Business group (p.19). Of course, more of the work undertaken within Scottish HEIs to support Scotland's economy could have been acknowledged,[146] although that is not the issue for this report.

One of the six objectives of the NSET is to promote 'a fairer and more equal society'. In reflecting on progress, reference is made to how economic development aligns to Best Start, Bright Futures, the Scottish Government's work to tackle child poverty, and of many other developments to redress imbalances in the labour market. In future, opportunities should be grasped to align fair access in higher education with this wider agenda to support Scotland's economic transformation, focusing on ways to promote fairness for those who accessed higher education from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the contribution that fair access can make to achieve the objective of fashioning a 'fairer and more equal society'.


Email: Clara.Pirie@gov.scot

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