Scottish university access: cracking the class ceiling

The Commission on Widening Access’ ambitious report looks to emulate and expand on Offa’s approach, says John Field

March 15, 2016
Girl jumping in cloisters of University of Glasgow

Scotland's Commission on Widening Access has just published its final report. You can read a copy here. Chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, a highly respected former college principal who has considerable experience in adult and further education, the commission listed 34 recommendations, which it describes as adding up to “a system-wide plan to achieve equal access within a generation”.

Overall, I’d say that the commission’s recommendations are as ambitious as this overall aim suggests. It focuses particularly on the massive socio-economic inequalities that characterise higher education participation in Scotland (I’m assuming I don’t need to dwell on the inequalities in other countries). It starts by calling on the Scottish government to appoint a commissioner for fair access, whose remit will among other things include responsibility for a “more substantial evidence base” than exists at present.

This sounds to me as though the commission thinks that the Office for Fair Access has on the whole worked well as an advocate for promoting wider access in England, although for tactical reasons this may be something to mutter quietly north of the border. However, the proposed Scottish commissioner would have greater powers to work with schools and other pre-16 providers than Offa, allowing a sharper strategic focus and helping avoid duplication.

The commission also tackles one of the great challenges in ensuring equity in Scottish higher education: the problem of articulation. In its interim report, the commission praised the expansion of higher education provision in colleges as a substantial contribution to wider access. The problem comes when students try to transfer from a college to university: the commission estimates that 84 per cent of transfers involved only five universities, with the most selective universities admitting few students and recognising less credit.

This is a problem of long standing, and it is a significant block on social mobility. I was delighted to see a strongly worded recommendation, urging the Scottish Funding Council to “seek more demanding articulation targets from those universities that have not traditionally been significant players”.

It also makes a number of recommendations about admissions criteria and procedures that will be widely welcomed by advocates of wider access, but will be less popular among academics and managers in the more selective universities. In a move that will provoke horror from some senior managers, the commission proposes that the SFC should make more use of existing regulatory powers to drive wider access, and urges the Scottish government to publish data on fair access.

The commission also recognised that the stratified nature of Scottish higher education has consequences for graduate destinations. Essentially, those who enter the most selective forms of higher education are by far the most likely to enter elite professions; those who complete short cycle higher education in a non-university context are the least likely. The report also notes that the least advantaged students are also less likely, on average, to complete their qualification.

Unfortunately, it seems that the commission was unable to consider inequalities in outcomes for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds in any depth. Its final recommendation invites the new commissioner to “consider what further work is required to support equal outcomes after study for those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with a care experience”.

My initial reaction, then, is that the commission has done a pretty decent job. I have some reservations about key gaps – for example, the lack of explicit attention to ethnicity and gender. The remit – as you can see above – was narrowly focused on children’s life chances, with no acknowledgement of second-chance learners. But on the whole, I think that Dame Ruth and her colleagues have delivered an important and challenging agenda for equity and mobility in Scotland, in a report that should be of interest way beyond our borders.

What will happen next is, of course, a matter for the Scottish government. Angela Constance, the minister responsible for education and lifelong learning, has broadly welcomed the report (while patting herself and her government on the back, both for their past achievements and for appointing the commission in the first place). Her official statement concluded with the following sentence:

I am very grateful to Dame Ruth Silver and the commissioners for the considerable time, effort and engagement they have put into producing this "Blueprint for Fairness". Their recommendations are bold and thoughtful and fit well with ongoing work around closing the attainment gap and developing the young workforce.

This reads to me as though adult learning still has no part to play in the Scottish government’s strategy for wider access, which is disappointing, if not very surprising. But the Scottish government has already faced down the more conservative-minded leaders in the higher education sector in demanding reforms to governance, so I am hopeful that they will go at least some way to tackling the social class inequalities and injustice that this report has highlighted.

John Field is visiting professor in the department of adult education and further education, University of Cologne, and emeritus professor of lifelong learning at the University of Stirling. This post was originally published on his blog The Learning Professor.

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