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Scotland’s access challenge

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Conor Ryan on the implications of today’s report on Scottish higher education access

Nicola Sturgeon has placed education at the top of the government’s agenda. By making her deputy John Swinney responsible for education in her cabinet, she has given a clear signal of how highly she prioritises the issue. And in looking again at national testing, she is showing a willingness to put pupils’ interests first: good data is vital to educational equality, and must be part of what emerges.

But the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated. Today’s Sutton Trust report Access in Scotland from Sheila Riddell and her colleagues at Edinburgh University provides the most detailed data to date on the scale of the access challenge north of the border.

Some figures are familiar: between the most and least disadvantaged, there is a four-fold gap in university access in Scotland at age 18, compared with a 2.4 point gap in England. Others are encouraging: access to “higher tariff” universities is less polarised than in England, although this may in part reflect that a larger proportion of the Scottish sector are in this category, though it includes all the ancient universities . But what is new is the startling figure that of the growth in new entrants to higher education from the poorest areas over the last decade, fully nine in ten have been to sub-degree courses at further education colleges.

This is not to decry the efforts of colleges. As I learnt in my time as a member of the Scottish Commission on Widening Access, articulation from college to university is a tried and tested route into university. Colleges have displayed an enormous dedication to improving the education of poorer students. But in a system where half the students moving from college to university have to repeat at least one year,  there are clear issues about both the  nature of what has been learnt before university and the willingness of universities, particularly the Ancients, to credit that learning.

Sturgeon has commendably accepted many of the recommendations of the Commission, including the idea of an independent Commissioner for Fair Access – a cross between Les Ebdon and Alan Milburn, at least in their current roles – and the target that a fifth of higher education entrants by 2030 should be from the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods.

There is a danger that the access debate is simply clouded in the arguments around tuition fees. In truth, neither side has a strong enough case there. The absence of tuition fees has not obviously changed the access picture – and in other countries, the abolition of tuition fees has proved a welcome initial saving for middle class families rather than a spur to participation by the poor. But then it is hard to argue that incurring £50,000 debt on graduation in a debt-averse culture is the right answer either, even if a proportion of the fees are used to fund access and outreach and regardless of what protection may be in place for lower earning graduates.

That’s why it is not enough simply to accept radical targets. The means must be put in place too. And that means accepting also the more radical commission proposal that universities should formalise their contextual admissions work with institutional minimum thresholds that are targeted at disadvantaged students. Critics in Scotland have talked of social engineering, but the inspiration for this idea was the radical access work at St Andrews which I heard about when visiting the university.

At St Andrews, studying Physics and Astronomy has become so popular that the standard asking rates are AAAA in the Highers. Students from a widening participation background can join standard degree programmes but with a modified Gateway entry year, which has a lower asking rate for entry, typically BBBB. In their year of entry these students do about half their credits on traditional modules integrated with the rest of the intake, and about half their time on strongly tutored modules designed for this entry cohort. The early Gateway cohorts include some doctoral students.

That’s also why it is so important that the Scottish government continues to fund dedicated places at the Ancients for disadvantaged students, particularly when other places continue to be capped.  But the changes needed to meet the ambitious targets can’t just be about the Ancients. Some universities already meet the 20% target, but there is room for more higher and degree-level apprenticeships in addition to their existing offer, directly linked to employers and jobs. The overall scale of provision at Scotland’s universities deserves more debate too, with applications having risen faster over recent years than the number of places.

Of course, none of what universities or ministers might do is enough on its own. The real challenge lies in what happens in schools, where attainment gaps are evident from an early age. It is a good start providing comparable data through assessments, but that needs follow up with equally radical approaches through targeted funding, a strong drive to improve standards, and intervention and support for schools with poorer results, especially in disadvantaged areas.

But we need to go further in raising aspirations too. The Sutton Trust supports 250 students each year at its summer schools at Edinburgh and St Andrews. Other charities, like the Robertson Trust, play a vital role funding access programmes too.

It is simply not fair that 26% of places at ancient universities go to privately educated students, when less than 5% of Scottish students are educated at independent schools. We need to see a concerted drive to improve education for able, gifted and talented students in every state school from S1 (Year 7 in England) onwards too.

That’s the challenge behind today’s report. And it is one that matters for Scotland’s future success.