This article is more than 1 year old

How do we maintain momentum towards fair access?

We're waiting for a new Commissioner for Fair Access. Universities Scotland's Kirsty Conlan sets out what is in the in-tray.
This article is more than 1 year old

Kirsty Conlon is Head of Learning and Teaching and Widening Access Policy at Universities Scotland.

Universities in Scotland is expecting an announcement on who will be the next Commissioner for Fair Access later this year.

Whoever succeeds the inaugural Commissioner, Peter Scott, will take up the role at a crucial point in the sector’s journey to reach the 2030 target of 20 per cent of students entering university from Scotland will be from our 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds.

The journey has been a success story so far. But there are actions steered by the next Commissioner, will be key to maintaining the momentum:

The sector in Scotland hopes to see the following issues at the top of their in-tray.

Add a person-specific metric to measurement

Adding an income-based measure as a metric, in addition to SIMD, would allow for better targeting of outreach and contextual admissions.

Up to now, SIMD has been the main metric accepted by Scottish Government. It serves a purpose, but it has many limits as outlined previously on Wonkhe by Robert Gordon’s Steve Olivier and William Hardie. We’ve been calling for the use of additional measures since 2014.

There are two credible possibilities for an income-based data measure:

  • The first is the free schools meals data set, which is robust and already in use by the Scottish Government. A Scottish Government working group first recommended its use alongside SIMD in 2019. Since then, UCAS has added free school meals as an access metric for applications made in England so we’re actually at risk of losing ground on the progressive strides already taken.
  • The second possibility is developing a measure using the new Scottish Child Payment, which would be focussed on individuals.

We also need measures that will work better to identify and support the access journey of mature students as they are an important aspect of this policy objective.

Universities have met the interim targets, based on the existing SIMD metric alone, so this is not about changing the goal posts. The 2030 target could be recalibrated, as needed. We should be measuring what counts, not just counting what we measure.

Act now to ensure the cost-of-living crisis does not derail progress

There’s an obvious risk that the cost-of-living crisis will make life difficult for our students and their mental health, with possible consequences for access and retention. We need short-term solutions, like more discretionary funding, to be delivered now and we need longer-term action in the form of a raise in student maintenance support and postgraduate loans to recognise rising inflation.

Several universities have seen cuts to their discretionary funding from SAAS this year. The funds have returned to pre-COVID levels. However, we’ve lurched from the COVID crisis to the cost-of-living one and arguably, the need is greater now.

Meaningfully engage on a holistic approach with schools

The original Commission’s report recognised that there needed to be a whole system approach to widening access. The next phase of the 2030 ambition must take a meaningful holistic approach and connect policy and progress between schools, colleges and universities.

The Scottish Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee is well placed to support this as its remit covers all levels of education.

Revive momentum on articulation

Scotland has extensive articulation routes into university via college. However, not enough people know about it and that needs to change. When we surveyed students on articulation routes in 2019 many told us they didn’t know about articulation until they got to college, so it wasn’t a pre-planned route for them. There should be a Scotland-wide campaign to raise awareness.

Looking ahead, we welcome the Scottish Qualification Authority’s work to evolve the Higher National in its NextGen: HN project. It will be important that the SQA takes this opportunity to support improved articulation opportunities for students by building in appropriate subject and curriculum mapping and by working closely with both the college and university sectors.

Renew the focus on evidence and research

The Scottish Framework for Fair Access was launched in 2017 in response to one of the original Commission’s recommendations. This brings together a toolkit, to assess the effectiveness of access interventions, and formalises a community of practitioners through Scotland’s Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAAP).

SCAPP is an excellent example of collaborative working in this space to help the momentum of change. SCAPP needs support to continue and modest funding to address the gap in research to determine what works.

Stop the free-fall of teaching funding per student

Fair admissions and support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds are inseparable from the broader question of funding university tuition. In the eight years since the Commission for Fair Access was established in 2014, there has been a 27 per cent real terms fall in the amount of public funding invested in teaching each Scottish undergraduate. Widening access takes significant commitment and resource. And the latter is in very short supply.

Cuts to the teaching grant have never been sustainable but the distance the sector still has to travel in order to reach 20 per cent of entrants in 2030. That, combined with the current financial context make the situation deeply concerning. Universities face the next budget in December with a fear of further real terms cuts. The reality is universities will need the Scottish Government to invest more public funding per student if they are to keep delivering and meet one of the Government’s key pledges.

The appointment of the next Commissioner comes at a really important time in Scotland’s access agenda. Their role; the advocacy, challenge and support they can bring to all parties will have a big impact in maintaining universities’ progress towards 2030. We look forward to the announcement and to working closely together.

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