University leaders promise action as Scotland assesses progress on access, Olga Wojtas reports.
Jackie Matthews left school in Aberdeen with no qualifications and went to work in a nursery. Aged 53, with 35 years of experience of working with young children, she was offered a place on a part-time distance-learning BA in early childhood studies, funded by the local authority.
During the course, she drew up evidence of her previous experience at work, which was accredited by Northern College as part of the degree. She enjoyed the experience so much that she has applied successfully to take an Open University masters degree.
Ms Matthews is one of 40 access students whose testimony has been invoked by Universities Scotland in its social inclusion campaign. It has unveiled the results of a six-month research project on progress so far, and the principals of all 18 of Scotland's higher education institutions have signed a pledge card on how they plan to support this further.
Already, Scottish higher education leads the United Kingdom - 17 per cent of Scottish students come from non-traditional backgrounds, against a national average of 12 per cent, and almost half of young Scots go into higher education. But the richest seventh of Scots are five times more likely to enter higher education than the poorest seventh.
The research, funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, has identified four barriers: cultural, practical, academic and institutional. Aspirations and awareness will be low where families and schools have no tradition of progress to higher education, it says. Financial difficulties, caring responsibilities and distance may deter potential students. They may lack the normal entrance qualifications and need extra academic support. And universities are geared towards accepting school-leavers with standard qualifications. They need to change their structures and strategies to deal with those coming through non-standard routes.
Principals have signed up to an action plan to ensure that their institutions are more active. Their seven promises to promote inclusion range from offering more flexible learning to reaching out into the community.
"The sector will recognise and promote as many routes into higher education as possible, valuing both prior learning and previous work or other experiences of students," one promise states. "The sector will continue to give students all the support we can to make sure they complete their courses successfully, and where they don't, will continue to investigate the reasons and address them where we can."
The research has uncovered a range of imaginative ventures whose details will be shared. Napier University has devised a one-to-one guidance interview that helps identify students with a high risk of dropping out. The guidance tutor then draws up a support plan. Heriot-Watt University is helping to retain students who are struggling with, or not enjoying, their first choice of degree. They can transfer to a combined-studies degree, replacing modules they have failed with another subject. Edinburgh University runs a free student employment service that advertises part-time, temporary and vacation jobs, often linked to students' courses.
But Universities Scotland warns that it cannot achieve social inclusion on its own and that success depends on a coordinated approach across many sectors of society. It acknowledges that student-support reforms, such as fee waivers for part-time students on low incomes and mature student bursaries, are beginning to help. But the principals want more efforts, with prospective students able to calculate their likely income before they begin a course.
Although Scotland's student-support package is more generous than England's, some question how wide its impact will be. Joan Stringer, principal of Queen Margaret University Scotland and vice-convenor of Universities Scotland, said that from autumn, Scottish students will, through loans and bursaries, have access to maximum public support of £4,225. But she noted that this still leaves a shortfall of almost £800 compared with their estimated annual costs of £5,000. "That is not a particular incentive to those from debt-averse, low-income families."
The research identified childcare as a major barrier to potential entrants. The cost of childminders and afterschool clubs is often beyond the means of students, it says, and relying on informal care is often stressful and may not be in a child's best interests. Universities Scotland plans to discuss the prospect of childcare subsidies with Universities UK and the Association of Scottish Colleges.
The Scottish Executive has earmarked £18 million to widen access over the next three years. This includes about £3 million for the new 5 per cent premium that institutions win for students from underrepresented groups. Wendy Alexander, Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, said: "It is about giving Scots their best chance of getting into higher education."
But Ron Emanuel, Glasgow University's vice-principal for learning and teaching, said: "I worry that we are addressing a very long-term problem on very short-term funding."
Sir Stewart Sutherland, principal of Edinburgh University and convenor of Universities Scotland, said social inclusion was a necessity, for reasons of economic development, natural justice and civic and social cohesion. "You cannot have a society that will be healthy where there are huge divides," he said.