A framework for fair access to higher education

The widening access and participation community is a vibrant and cooperative one, with individuals working together to improve the outcomes of those from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds.

In Scotland, practitioners in higher education institutions, colleges, schools and the third sector will be supported in that task with the launch of the Scottish Framework for Fair Access. Designed to help tackle the thorny issues of evaluation and impact, it provides guidance on what works in access and supports the sector to build a stronger evidence base.

The Framework for Fair Access was first conceived by the Commission on Widening Access chaired by Ruth Silver, as one of the core recommendations within the report, published in 2016. The Commission highlighted and commended the array of access interventions across Scotland, pointing in particular to the success of bridging programmes. It noted the considerable amount of public funding that was invested in such activities but expressed frustration that it was near impossible to determine which programmes deliver meaningful impact due to a dearth of robust evaluative evidence. A Scottish Framework for Fair Access was intended to help bridge that gap.

The task to build the Framework was conferred on the first Commissioner for Fair Access, Peter Scott, who was appointed in December 2016 to lead “cohesive and system wide efforts to drive fair access in Scotland”. The Commissioner devolved responsibility to a Framework Development Group chaired by Conor Ryan (then of the Sutton Trust and now with the Office for Students) and comprising representatives from schools, colleges and universities, as well as access practitioners and researchers.

Our role was to determine what the Framework should be and how it should be built. We were conscious that if it is to be used by the sector, it must be of use to the sector and owned by the sector and that it should support activity without stifling creativity.

We concluded the Framework would require two pillars – an online toolkit which provides accessible summaries of a range of interventions with comparative ratings for cost, direction of impact and strength of research evidence. And a new professional development network for access practitioners.

The toolkit

With funding provided by the Scottish Funding Council, the Framework Development Group commissioned the independent, not-for-profit social research company, CFE Research, to develop content for the Toolkit. They have a strong track record in widening access having undertaken impact evaluation of the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP).

CFE Research undertook a rapid review of published evidence on selected interventions and published a call for evidence across Scotland. They focused on interventions delivered in a Scottish context, where possible, with assessment of impact, volume and credibility of evidence and cost. The toolkit covers access, retention and progression with signposting to guidance and toolkits to enhance evaluation.

The community

Following online consultation to determine what the access sector would find useful to support their work and to improve evaluation, the Framework Development Group established a short life working group of practitioners to develop a community of practice aligned to the toolkit. They created the Scotland’s Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP) brand, successfully secured funding from the Scottish Funding Council for a Development Coordinator to take forward activity and embed a sustainable membership model, and agreed upon aims and objectives.

SCAPP aims to provide a practitioners’ network to support the development and professionalisation of a strong widening access and participation community in Scotland and by doing this embed, enhance and support effective practice. SCAPP’s guiding principles are to be inclusive, system-wide, practitioner-focused and to build upon, not duplicate, existing national and local networks. Its five objectives or areas of activity are:

  • The Toolkit e.g. to inform the content and champion use of the Toolkit
  • Evaluation and Research e.g. to work with researchers to ensure practitioners have access to up-to-date evidence to inform their work
  • Networking e.g. provide opportunities to collaborate, discuss and share practice, resources and skills
  • Training and Development e.g. create, identify and promote training opportunities
  • Quality Standards e.g. explore formal accreditation.

The Development Coordinator will take up post in mid-May and SCAPP are currently seeking nominations for their Steering Group.

Governance and the future

The launch is the first phase in a long-term project. Governance and strategic support for both the toolkit and SCAPP will be taken forward by a Framework Governance Group chaired by the Commissioner, there will be further updates to the toolkit as more evaluation is undertaken and shared and SCAPP’s role and activities will build over the coming years. We hope that in the Scottish Framework for Fair Access we have, indeed, created a framework for this dynamic and committed community to enhance collaboration, understanding and impact.

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