This morning, I published Renewing the Alliance for Fair Access.
It is the sixth annual report of the Commissioner for Fair Access and the first for which I am responsible, since I stepped into the very big boots of Peter Scott and assumed responsibility for the role in January 2023.
I have made 20 recommendations and outlined my ten priority issues for 2024.
Something old and something new
Peter made 78 recommendations over his five reports, responding to the 34 recommendations in A Blueprint for Fairness, the agenda-setting report of the Commission on Widening Access, published in 2016. Just as my predecessor found it necessary to make subsequent recommendations on issues that featured as recommendations in earlier reports, some of the content in my report will be familiar.
For example, I re-affirm that the primary focus of fair access work should continue to be improving outcomes for those who experience or have experienced socio-economic disadvantage, which is not inconsistent with encouraging universities in Scotland to collectively specify a basket of indicators from which individual HEIs may draw to demonstrate their wider work in promoting fair access. And, I implore funders to act on the advice of the previous Commissioner for Fair Access, specified as a recommendation in each of his last four annual reports, to commit to more secure and longer-term funding for Scottish Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP).
However, these are challenging times and it is time for something new. As was acknowledged by many Scottish HEIs in their reflections on fair access in their latest Outcome Agreements with the Scottish Funding Council, the pursuit of fair access is set within a context of budgetary pressures for the sector, a cost-of-living crisis that is impinging on entrants’ decision-making, and legacy impacts of Covid-19 on recruitment. Most pertinently of all, progress has stalled. Although a record number of entrants came from Scotland’s most deprived areas in 2021-22, their share has flatlined (16.5 per cent). Furthermore, several Scottish HEIs indicated in their latest Outcome Agreement that either the number or proportion of entrants from the most deprived areas seems to have fallen in 2023-24. The prospect of 1,200 fewer places being made available to Scottish-domiciled students in 2024-25 adds further uncertainty.
On the other hand, there is some re-assurance that the new leadership in the Scottish Government remains committed to fair access, having re-asserted that it aims to meet the next interim target of 18 per cent of full-time first degree entrants to universities coming from the most deprived communities in Scotland by 2026. To achieve this, business as usual will be a necessary, but insufficient, condition.
Something borrowed, lots to do
My name might be on the cover page, but I have unashamedly drawn from the collective expertise and experience of those working to promote fair access in Scotland. Over the course of 2023, I had 111 engagements, which included visiting and/or engaging each of Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions, and many specialists and interest groups, all of which provided an abundance of ideas and inspiration.
In pitching my report to the wider public, I have emphasised that record numbers of entrants to higher education from Scotland’s most deprived areas has not – as yet – been at the expense of those from the least deprived areas, whose numbers have themselves increased by 8.4 per cent since 2013-14. Over the course of 2023, there has been some murmurings of discontent that the promotion of fair access is squeezing out others. I foresee that I will be spending more time engaging with others on this issue in the years ahead.
In some respects, this is a transitional phase for fair access work in Scotland. The tightly defined metric and narrow focus for its work to date – Scottish-domiciled, full-time, entrants, most deprived areas – has been an asset. However, there is a need to recalibrate to give more attention to other matters, for example, part-time students, graduate apprenticeships, variation across disciplines, and student experience, among others. This should involve a move away from reliance on an area-based metric to take account of disadvantage at the level of the individual.
Before we ask for more, we need to make what we have work harder. We need to make better use of the data we already have and make better use of the research talent that can capitalise on this. The Hayward review of school education qualifications in Scotland recommended that the learner takes ownership of their profile, available digitally, as they progress through and beyond school learning: this might be the catalyst for developing the means to track learner journeys, and to better understand pathways to fair access. However, the case for investment will be stronger when higher education can demonstrate that it optimises its use of all the data currently at its disposal to achieve fair access.
Although there is shared purpose, this does not always amount to collective endeavour. Universities in Scotland must collectively agree what intelligence is in the national interest to promote fair access (as opposed to that which is commercially sensitive), and thereafter ensure that this intelligence is made available and shared to all relevant stakeholders in Scotland.
Of course, fair access will not be achieved by universities alone – we know this already. I intend to be much more proactive in engaging all stakeholders with contributions to make.