Why widening participation matters more than ever: View from the Scottish HE sector

Supporting and increasing access for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds is more important than ever. No learners will be left unscathed by the COVID-19 pandemic and we know our learners from underrepresented groups are going to have even more intense challenges: lack of access to Wi-Fi or sufficient technology; lack of quiet space to study in; extreme financial worries; mental health and wellbeing issues (in particular for those with caring responsibilities); and heightened isolation (especially for care experienced or estranged students living alone).

Evidence has already highlighted the detrimental impact a six week summer holiday can have on young people living in poverty; research suggests the achievement gaps between different socioeconomic groups may grow primarily during the summer holidays, when children are away from school, and so three months or more out of education is likely to have longer-term impacts than we’re aware of currently.

Poverty is a huge barrier to accessing higher education and although much progress has been made in the last few years, 18-year-olds from Scotland’s 20% least deprived communities are around four times as likely to enter university as those from the 20% most deprived communities. Around 22% of children in Edinburgh live in relative poverty (defined as their household income being below 60% of the average income).  

School closures and digital poverty

For prospective students, isolation and time out of formal education has introduced uncertainty and cultivated a sense of unpreparedness for university life. But this new reality is more real for some; a recent report from the Sutton Trust shone a spotlight on how the COVID-19 pandemic is widening the existing attainment gap for students from the poorest backgrounds. This research revealed that not all students have equal access to online provision, and almost half (48%) of applicants feel the COVID-19 health crisis will have a negative impact on their chances of getting into their first-choice university, with working-class applicants being more likely to be worried. Students from working-class backgrounds were twice as likely to have insufficient access to the internet, devices for learning or a suitable place to study, compared to those from middle-class homes.

School hubs have been set up in most local authorities in Scotland in order to continue to support vulnerable students or those with additional learning needs, but a spokesperson for the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SCSC) said: “We have concerns that just under 1 percent of schoolchildren are at childcare hubs and, of those attending, 86 percent are the children of key workers, while only 14 percent are vulnerable children. These are very small numbers, reflecting the fact that only a tiny fraction of vulnerable children are taking up these places, and should set alarm bells ringing.”

Care experienced and estranged students: some specific challenges

For those students without family networks, COVID-19 has brought an abrupt and very specific hardship – what home should they return to and what support networks are available to them at a frightening and isolating time? UK-wide charities supporting care experienced and estranged students combined efforts early on and surveyed their target groups to find out what their main worries were. Responses revealed that 62% of students are concerned about earning money and 50% are worried about getting essential supplies such as food; 62% said they were worried about their ability to complete their courses and 55% were worried about feeling lonely or isolated.

Final year students

Speaking to graduating students from lower-income families, they describe the hardships they are currently facing in terms of loss of part-time employment and the fear of having no financial safety net. Poppy Jeffery, a final year philosophy student spoke of the uncertainty about her graduate prospects, citing that at least 50% of the graduate roles or internships she had applied for had been axed and that SME internships were in high demand. She hadn’t even considered postgraduate study due to the cost and was even less likely to consider it within the current environment with extra family pressure to get into the workplace to earn money. Poppy and her fellow fourth year Cam Somers are founders and editors for the Level with Me online journal about the experiences of students from underrepresented groups.

Sector-wide responses to COVID-19

As with other parts of the UK, a new £5 million programme has been put in place to offer an internet connection, training and support, and a laptop or tablet to vulnerable people who are not already online during the response to coronavirus (COVID-19). The Scottish Funding Council has extended funding for all its core access initiatives – the Scottish Higher Education Programme (SHEP), Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP), and Accessing the High Demand professions. The Scottish Government moved swiftly and put hardship funding in place; another £5 million package of emergency financial support to help students facing hardship as a result of the pandemic. Within this support there was also an extension of the Care-Experienced Accommodation Grant, allowing eligible students to access support of a non-repayable grant of up to £105 per week earlier than usual.

At the University of Edinburgh we are connecting differently with our prospective students in schools, colleges, and local communities, being careful not to overburden teachers and students but offering clear and tailored support. We’ve been setting up online sessions and making our resources available online for students to access as well as pre-recording IAG sessions for school teachers to use with their students. A member of staff is at the end of the phone or video call for care experienced and estranged students and a mentoring scheme for current care experienced students has continued through the lockdown, with University staff ensuring they still have the time to continue to support their mentees.

What next?

Now, possibly more than ever before, we must ensure that we consider those students who face disadvantage within their educational journey, in particular those already underrepresented in higher education. We need to ensure that the progress we have made in widening access over the last few years doesn’t fall by the wayside and to consider those learners at every stage in the student lifecycle, by:  

  • maintaining our connections and support for local communities and schools
  • ensuring fairness is embedded into every aspect of the admissions process
  • enhancing the welcome and transition to university
  • strengthening the support structures we have in place for the most vulnerable students
  • considering the educational gaps they may have experienced while reforming and designing curriculum
  • supporting our graduates to access employment and further study opportunities despite the challenging circumstances they find themselves in.

Laura Cattell is Head of Widening Participation/Deputy Director of Student Recruitment and Admissions at the University of Edinburgh. Read the institution’s Strategy 2030 and Widening Participation Strategy launched in 2018.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani 

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