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The long road to Fair Access in Scotland

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) ‘Fair Access’ Conference took place in the impressive Perth Conference Hall on Wednesday. It brought to the fore an increased recognition of the many challenges that face students from poorer backgrounds. The Scottish Government has set out on the long road to a place where fair access may come about. But their map lacks detail about what lies ahead and the road will become steeper and more difficult if the post-code illusion leads them astray.

Political optimism.

The Scotland Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead concentrated on the headline successes in widening participation in recent years; as detailed in the recently released ‘Commissioner for Fair Access annual report 2019: building on progress towards fair access’. As he stressed in another speech back in May, at the launch of the Scottish Government’s Fair Access Framework, he emphasised again that “Scotland is ahead of the curve in delivering equality of access” (see TEFS 10th May 2019 ‘Building a Fair Access Framework: Hitting the nail on the head’. It would seem that Scotland is on the road to making improvements. But, as for elsewhere in the UK, these are very slow to happen and there is a long way to go. It seems apparent that politicians in Scotland are afflicted with the same inability to articulate where the real challenges and problems lie. Instead they focus on any hint of success; however tenuous. The main ‘success’ is that Scotland is on the way to meeting an interim target from the Commission on Widening Access (CoWA) in its report of 2016 ‘A Blueprint for Fairness’. The general interim 2021 target is that students from the most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 16% of full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities as a whole. In 2018 this had reached 15.6%. However, this is being measured by where the students come from by postcode. It is not an individual measure of deprivation.

This 16% target is likely to be achieved by 2021, but in the light of the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government 2014-15 it is a low target that falls well short of achieving the aspiration of parity. Then the ambition was that “a child born at that time in one of Scotland’s most deprived communities should, by the time she or he left school, have the same chance of going to university as a child born in one of the country’s least deprived areas.” This means that the government is pledged to meet its “commitment to equal access to university by 2030”.

The reality is that a harder road lies ahead.

In his introduction to the conference Mike Cantlay, Chair of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) was less reticent about the situation. He acknowledged the comments from the Fair Access Commissioner, Peter Scott, that “Although it may appear the 2021 target of at least 16 per cent of full-time first degree entrants from the 20 per cent most deprived areas as measured by the Scottish Index of Deprivation (SIMD) is within sight, the last miles are often the most difficult”. He also noted the disparity in access between different institutions and in reaching the other targets being set. One of these will be a major challenge for the so called ‘older elite’ institutions.

“By 2021, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent, at least, 10% of full-time first degree entrants to every individual Scottish university”.

But it is simply fact that only marginal improvements have been made in access to the elite institutions. Setting a lower target for those universities is really an admission of defeat. The use of the terms SIMD20 and SIMD Quintile 1 or Q1 for the same thing (i.e. the lowest 20% participation areas in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) in the same document is annoying. More so when it is used as a proxy for ‘disadvantage’. But it is fact that students from these areas are mostly attending colleges and post-1992 universities. There is a clear social exclusion in the remaining ‘elite’ universities just as there is across the rest of the UK. Scotland is no different. In 2017/18, only 6% went to Aberdeen University. The same low rates of 7.5% and 8.1% hold for St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities. In contrast, 19.1% and 23.5% went to the University of the West of Scotland and Glasgow Caledonian University. This is the biggest challenge for the last miles. 

The so called ‘Articulation’ from colleges to the top universities could be a very valuable way for students to achieve what is required. This is how students with good college qualifications use these to move to university level courses. However, the 2019 report is clear that “Progress on articulation has been disappointing. Too many applicants with Higher Nationals (HNs) are being denied the credit to which they are entitled”. This is backed up by the recent and excellent SFC report in April “Articulation from Scottish Colleges to Scottish Universities 2017-18’. The barrier should be lifted with some urgency to achieve the ambition of parity.

The post-code illusion.
The use of postcodes as a proxy for measuring ‘deprivation’ has come under considerable fire in the rest of the UK in the last year (See TEFS 6th April 2018 ‘Flying over the UK on a POLAR expedition. The distant cracks in university access are widening’ and April 22nd 2019 ‘POLAR whitewash fails to cover all surfaces’). As a result, the use of Participation in Local Areas (or POLAR) methodology in England is slowly being superseded by UCAS with a multiple equality measure (MEM) (see also UCAS MEM – summary report October 2018), as a way to get better data on individuals. This is acknowledged in the 2019 Fair Access report but needs to be stressed more. Scotland will have to do this to match the aspiration elsewhere in the UK or it will fall behind. For example, it is possible to quantify those from a free school meals background that access university in England. The 2019 Fair Access Report also acknowledges this with, “There is clear evidence that students registered for FSMs in school are seriously under-represented in higher education”. This is a fact across the UK and it needs to be assessed in Scotland as a key individual measure. 

Scotland has set out along the road to a place where there might be fair access but does not have a very accurate map and little idea of what provisions will be needed. The first milestones will be reached in time; but from then on the road will become steeper and tough going. Difficult decisions will have to be made as new information about what lies ahead comes in and the post-code illusion should not be allowed to lead them astray.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics


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