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.

6. My priorities in 2024

In conclusion, I outline my ten priorities for 2024, the first three of which describe how I will approach my work as Commissioner: it is my intention that each of the remainder will lead to future recommendations on actions to be taken to promote fair access.

1. To follow up on each of my recommendations and to report on progress in my next annual report.My predecessor made frequent reference to the status of the 34 recommendations presented by the Commission on Widening Access in his annual reports and occasional briefing papers,[165] most notably in Re-committing to Fair Access: A Plan for Recovery [166]in 2021.Sir Peter also made 78 recommendations across five reports. Those embedded in the fair access agenda will be able to identify those recommendations that were acted upon … and those which were not (some of which featured as recommendations in several annual reports). As with my predecessor, I propose to follow-up on progress between reports. However, I also intend to present a review of progress (or otherwise) with each recommendation in subsequent Commissioner reports.

2. To produce a second annual report, to be published, as soon as is practicably possible, after the release of the SFC's Report on Widening Access 2022-23. Having been appointed in January 2023, it was prudent to spend the full year immersing myself in the fair access agenda, before preparing my first annual report. My predecessor published his first report in December (2017), before reverting to a month of publication that followed soon after the release of the Scottish Funding Council's annual release of the Report on Widening Access, i.e., June (2019, 2020 and 2021) and May (2022). I will revert to this schedule and publish my second annual report in the middle of 2024.

3. To produce my first bi-annual report, ideally to be published at the start of 2025, i.e., halfway between annual reports, to provide a timely update on progress to promote fair access. We are now laying the foundations to meet the next interim CoWA target in 2026, which will require timely interventions, an intensification of activity, and a sustained focus. I am mindful of the multiple demands on the time of leaders who are responsible for shaping how their institutions and organisations respond to the challenge of promoting fair access. However, my engagements with these leaders and with practitioners in 2023 re-assures me that there is strong commitment to achieve fair access, and that a more regular report from the Commissioner for Fair Access would be welcomed as an asset, rather than viewed as a burden.

4. To engage with school leaders and universities in Scotland to explore whether inefficiencies at SCQF Level 7 can be addressed through system change and/or institutional practice. If we were designing an education system from scratch: we would not devise one in which unconditional offers of a place at university enabled school pupils to dis-engage from studies in 6th year, as the offer determined that they were pursuing qualifications that were no longer a condition of entry; we would encourage and enable students to enter university immediately after 5th year if they had achieved sufficient qualifications at SCQF Level 6; we would permit entry to all courses after S5 to 'access students' who had achieved the Minimum Entry Requirements; and we would enable entry to the second year of university for students who had attained sufficient credit at SCQF Level 7 in their 6th year of schooling. However, there may be compelling reasons for the existence and persistence of what appear to be inefficiencies or inequities. I intend to explore these issues in 2024.

5. To engage with Universities Scotland and Colleges Scotland to better understand the prospects for increasing the proportion of HN students articulating with so-called 'Advanced Standing' into SCQF Level 8 and 9. There has been little progress in the proportion of HN students entering university at the SCQF Level above the one that they attained at college. Recommendations in the CoWA report[167] and in each of my predecessor's annual reports[168] have not led to a step-change in the proportion of students articulating from college with Advanced Standing. I intend to understand why so little progress has been made, with a view to reviewing the 75% benchmark specified by SFC.

6. To examine retention rates for SIMD20 entrants, focusing on why these have not improved substantially since the introduction of the CoWA agenda. There has been little progress in the proportion of SIMD20 entrants progressing to a second year of study. As for entrants articulating with so-called 'Advanced Standing', I intend to understand why so little progress has been made, in improving retention rates of SIMD20 entrants.

7. To reflect on insight from the Student Finance and Wellbeing Survey commissioned by the Scottish Government, and the wider evidence base, to better understand how students' financial situation impacts on fair access. There is emerging evidence that students' financial situation may be impacting adversely on their studies,[169] and their inclination to pursue studies,[170] while outside of Scotland innovative approaches to supporting students financially are being pursued.[171] I intend to review this emerging evidence base, paying particular attention to the insight that the Student Finance and Wellbeing Survey will provide for students in Scotland.

8. To explore possibilities to enhance and promote regional intelligence, and to strengthen cross-institutional collaboration in regions to advance the fair access agenda. There are many examples of regional co-operation to promote fair access in Scotland, not least in the work of the four regional collaborations of the National Schools Programme,[172] and the two regional collaborations of the Scottish Widening Access Programme.[173] However, in other respects direction of travel is not always consistent within regions. For example, between 2020/21 and 2021/22, in the city of Dundee, the number of SIMD20 entrants to Abertay University increased when the numbers fell in the University of Dundee; in Glasgow, the number of SIMD20 entrants to the University of Glasgow increased, when the numbers fell in both the University of Strathclyde and Glasgow Caledonian University; and in Aberdeen, the number of SIMD20 students increased in the University of Aberdeen, but fell in Robert Gordon University. The Access Delivery Group has also described how the distribution of datazones within the SIMD20 target group are unevenly distributed across Scotland.[174] I intend to review the prospects for strengthening regional intelligence[175] and collaboration to support the fair access agenda.

9. To review the deployment of contextual admissions and Minimum Entry Requirements across Scottish HEIs to appraise whether the impact on fair access is optimal. The introduction of Minimum Entry Requirements (in 2019)[176] for all courses and a commitment to work toward consistency and clarity in the application of contextualised admissions were among the most significant of the responses of universities in Scotland to the CoWA report.[177] Now that these have bedded in to the admissions system, it would be useful to review their deployment to understand if they are being used to optimal impact in promoting fair access.

10. To engage with professional bodies, Programme leads, and Heads of Department (or equivalent) to promote shared responsibility for the fair access agenda in Scotland. For good reason, the leaders in promoting fair access within universities have been university executives and those working specifically to admit and facilitate access to higher education. Although academics provide support in these endeavours, and although some professional groupings have expressed an interest in examining the socio-demographic complexion of its student population,[178] there is scope to strengthen the fair access ecosystem by encouraging more reflection on disciplines and university departments.


Email: Clara.Pirie@gov.scot

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