A new decade for widening access in Scotland

By Laura Johnstone, The Brilliant Club

With the beginning of a new decade, I thought I would take some time to reflect on the changing environment of widening access in Scotland and look forward to another decade of the pursuit of equity of opportunity north of the border.

A driving force within widening access in Scotland has been the will of the Scottish Government in a decade where Scottish politics has been a major talking point.  The Scottish Independence Referendum Act was passed in 2013, and has inspired a nation to become more informed and engaged with the political agenda.  The debate continues despite a No vote and has not resigned itself to the history books quite yet.  Within the White Paper for Independence, the Scottish Government continued to show its commitment to equity of opportunity of attending Higher Education within Scotland stating:

Access to higher education will be based on ability, not wealth; this Government will protect free tuition fees for Scottish students and continue to provide appropriate support for living costs.

A new First Minister in Nicola Sturgeon, in what has been described as a new age for Scottish politics, stated in her first Programme for Government in 2014 something which has become a mantra within widening access in Scotland:

I want us to determine now that a child born today in one of our most deprived communities will, by the time he or she leaves school, have the same chance of going to university as a child born in one of our least deprived communities.

This statement led to the development of the Commission for Widening Access which published its findings in 2016 as A Blueprint For Fairness which contained 34 recommendations, all accepted by the Scottish Government, to improve access to Higher Education not only for young people from deprived postcodes but also those with care experience and adult learners – to name a few.  This report led to the appointment of a Commissioner for Fair Access, the development of a School Engagement Framework, and the Framework for Fair Access which launched in 2019 and includes a Toolkit for Fair Access and the creation of a community of practice for access practitioners in the Scottish Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP).

The Blueprint also introduced ambitious targets for institutions, including the aim that students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds will represent at least 16% of full-time degree entrants to universities as a whole, and 10% at each individual university, by 2021. The ultimate target is for students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds to represent 20% of university entrants by 2030.

Other, often overshadowed, developments within the past decade include the introduction of Outcome Agreements, the Post 16 Education (Scotland) Act 2013, the 15-24 Learner Journey review in 2018 and Independent Review of Student Support in 2017.  There is also ongoing work around the measures of deprivation with Scotland currently mainly using the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD – similar to IDACI) which takes into consideration the area a person lives in but not individual experiences of deprivation or family experience of higher education. I could go on and on – but these are discussions for another day!

Image credit: Brooke Cagle

Looking forward to the next decade, change can be seen as soon as now.  This year will see the first cohort of students who will be eligible for ‘access threshold’ offers: minimum entry requirements published in prospectuses for applicants from a widening access background.  By 2021, we will know if universities have been successful in meeting their first targets as published in the Blueprint for Fairness, and further review of the access initiatives available for applicants will take place to ensure we are on track to hit the ambitious aims for the end of this next decade.

Time will tell if these targets can be met and, if so, how.  In his annual report for 2019, the Commissioner for Fair Access, Sir Prof Peter Scott, reports that real progress has been made towards the 2021 interim targets but gaps still exist.  This is particularly evident on an individual university level where some are already exceeding their 2021 targets and some are still away off (although this is also partly discussed as a problem with the measures of deprivation as similar results are being seen within regions regardless of whether they are an ancient or modern university).  The child born today as referred to by Nicola Sturgeon in her now infamous speech is at this point five years old, midway through their first year at primary school. Research shows us, even at this early age, that they will be starting to think about what they want to be when they grown up.  It is up to us to show that child that they have the power to be whatever they want, regardless of their postcode or their family circumstances, and working towards this goal seems as good a New Year’s resolution as any.

If you would be interested in continuing the discussion on widening access in a Scottish context or want to share your ideas on research or practice which you think would be relevant to a Scottish audience, FACE has provided funding for a Scottish Special Interest Group. The SIG will provide a discussion platform both in a physical and digital environment, as well as seminars relevant to access in Scotland.  If you would be interested in getting involved in this group, please email me at laura.johnstone@thebrilliantclub.org.

Laura Johnstone is a FACE Executive Member and National Manager for Scotland – The Scholars Programme at The Brilliant Club

Image credit: Alex Holyoake

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