The impact of Covid-19 on fair access to higher education, and pretty much everything else, can be summed up in a single phrase reworked from St Matthew’s Gospel: “to those that have least the most has been taken away.”
It is no lack of respect for the efforts of universities and colleges as they struggle to mitigate the worst effects of Covid-19 on opportunities for young people from more socially deprived communities or suffering other forms of disadvantage (such as care experience or disability) to say these efforts have not, and could never, be enough.
The negative impact on fair access has not been “fixed”. Nor, in the comforting belief that higher education has done what it can, can the main burden now be passed to others – schools struggling to cope, the NHS and the hope of “magic bullet” vaccines and other therapeutics, the “levelling up” agenda, whatever. Instead fair access, or rather the lack of it, has been exposed in the sharp and unforgiving light of the pandemic as higher education’s greatest challenge. There is now nowhere to hide for access deniers or access sceptics.
I have recently completed a special report on the impact of Covid-19 on fair access for the Scottish Government in my role as Commissioner for Fair Access. It is based on responses from Scottish universities and also colleges, which play a key role in providing higher education north of the Border. The consistency of the messages that came through, although not surprising, is relentless.
- Pupils, and so potential applicants, in more deprived communities have suffered the greatest interruption to their schooling. Infection rates have been highest in these communities, which have also suffered the worst scarring in terms of incomes and jobs. So fewer may even be in a position to apply to university, let alone get admitted.
- The same pupils, and similarly disadvantaged students in universities, suffer most from digital poverty, which is far more than lack of laptops and decent wireless. It’s also about safe spaces in maybe chaotic households, or any study space at all, and loneliness and isolation.
- Outreach activities are not just about making good any gaps in academic preparation for higher education. They are also about demystifying universities for potential applicants who see them, not entirely inaccurately, as “not for people like us”. Outreach is much better done in person than online.
- Deprived and disadvantaged students have been hardest hit by the loss of part-time jobs which they rely on most. They cannot fall back on the bank of mum and dad, who may well have been even harder hit. Mental health, already an epidemic before the Covid-19 pandemic, has also had the greatest impact on students who lack the comforting familiarity with higher education enjoyed by their more privileged peers.
So the list goes on. All predictable, of course. Covid-19 has just shone a bright light on the deeply entrenched inequalities in access to higher education that have always existed. The conclusion I draw is that incremental improvement stretching out into future decades (or even centuries!) is not enough. We need a step-change, a new openness to more radical interventions.
Admissions in context
One example. Scottish universities have systematised contextual admissions to an extent that hasn’t happened (yet) in the rest of the UK. They now all publish minimum entry requirements which, if deprived and disadvantaged applicants meet them, guarantee them places. But despite being a significant advance, in flexibility and transparency, these new minimum entry requirements are still expressed in terms of exam grades.
That creates two difficulties. As I’ve said, the differential impact of school interruptions as a result of Covid-19 may reduce the chances of applicants from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds getting even these reduced grades, and therefore meeting adjusted offers.
And the supposed gold standard of Highers (or A levels) is now being, if not devalued, revalued. With the cancellation of Highers and Advanced Highers in Scotland, the cancellation of A levels in Wales, and Monday’s announcement in England, next summer there will see two cohorts of applicants who haven’t sat formal examinations.
This enforced pivot from a system on formal examinations, and (certainly in England, thanks mainly to Michael Gove) the exclusion of most coursework, to a system that is almost totally dependent on teacher assessments cannot be treated as blip. It has implications for higher education admissions reliant on grades, including minimum entry requirements in Scotland.
A time for boldness
My conclusion, and recommendation in my report, is that universities must now make bolder, and more flexible, use of contextual admissions not only to combat the worst effects of Covid-19 but to bite into the systematic discrimination against the deprived and disadvantaged in terms of access to higher education.
My report acknowledges the role of staff in the present emergency – for example, the lecturer at Borders College in Galashiels who drove to the top of the highest hill to get a good enough mobile signal to communicate with her students. We should remember that any successful adaptation has been down to grass roots staff, not just to disembodied corporate institutions (although these are too often the focus of exclusive attention in the eyes of the policy and boss class in higher education). The contrast with the NHS is illuminating. We came out of our houses to clap doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, not chief executives and directors of transformation.
Covid-19 and the public health emergency have been a profound shock to all the nations of the UK. But maybe Scotland will be more resilient in the context of fair access. One reason is political leadership. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, now so much more familiar to a UK-wide audience as a calm and careful leader, made fair access her cause six years ago. It was her pledge that – by 2030 – 20 per cent of entrants to higher education should come from the 20 per cent most deprived communities in Scotland that has been key to the progress Scotland has already made. It is hard to imagine the Eton and Oxford educated UK Prime Minister making fair access his personal cause.
But there is another deeper reason for my confidence. As Scotland drifts towards political separation from the UK, paradoxically at a time when underlying social and cultural attitudes are converging on both sides of the border, it has developed a civic story that emphasises social justice and inclusion and progressive public policy (with some “wokery” that must set the UK Tory Government’s on edge). Rather like the older stories, maybe myths, about the “lad o’pairts” heading off to university with his sack of porridge oats, or the Enlightenment inspired “democratic intellect”, it matters less whether this new story is true than that it is believed, and woven into Scotland’s sense of its national identity. Fair access to higher education, it seems to me, is a collateral beneficiary of this identity.