University leaders have urged policymakers to be patient on widening access to Scotland’s top institutions amid claims four decades will pass before ‘fair’ access to higher education is achieved.
According to a report released yesterday (25 July) by the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland, the past five years have seen a 1 per cent increase in the proportion of students at university from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds – from 10.6 per cent in 2005-06 to 11.6 per cent in 2010-11.
Based on current progress, it would take until 2050 before 20 per cent of the student population emerged from the 20 per cent poorest backgrounds, added the Unlocking Scotland’s Potential report.
Amid renewed demands by the student body to introduce binding targets on access underpinned by legislation and the prospect of financial penalties, Universities Scotland has called for restraint on pursuing a legislative route until new outcome agreements are given ample time to bed in.
The request appears to have been heeded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), which today told Holyrood financial sanctions are largely off the table in this year’s round of agreements while signalling a reluctance to rely on such a measure beyond 2012-13.
In a briefing published following NUS Scotland’s findings, Universities Scotland, which represents principals at 19 institutions north of the Border, said: “We would also like to see the sector given the opportunity to act on and deliver on the outcome agreements, only just signed-off by the Scottish Funding Council in July 2012, before any further changes or requirements of universities are brought forward.
“The process of agreeing outcome agreements has been an intensive and bureaucratic exercise this year but it has been undertaken in good faith on the part of universities. It is our view that it would be practical to give these outcome agreements an opportunity to deliver progress and evaluate their success before moving to a new regime including potential legislation.”
The agreements, which have been tailored to each higher education institution, call on universities to, among other things, widen access and improve flexible learning.
Punitive financial penalties for failure to widen access, while expected to be overlooked in the 2012-13 academic year, could be considered further down the line as part of proposals to be debated at the SNP’s autumn conference.
Negotiations are still ongoing over this year’s round of agreements, though, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) has said, and could take up to another month to be given the green light.
A spokesperson told Holyrood: “We’re currently finalising outcome agreements for 2012-13. The particular focus of these will be on access and knowledge exchange. The outcome agreements for this year are just the start of a process, not least because discussions about them began after universities had already agreed their curriculum and accepted most of their students for academic year 2012-13.
“But, this is just the first phase in a long-term programme of change in post-16 education in Scotland where the Funding Council will play its part alongside universities to improve peoples’ life chances, provide the best for Scotland’s learners and maximise universities’ contribution to economic growth.
“And, as a critical part of that programme, Government and the Funding Council are looking to the university sector to deliver clear and continuing improvement in performance through the current spending review period and beyond.”
A motion put forward for debate when members of the SNP meet in Perth this October urges the use of financial penalties if universities fall short of widening access targets, though the chief funding body insists it would constitute a very last option.
The SFC spokesperson added: “Discussions with universities on their outcome agreements for 2012-13 began after universities had already agreed their curriculum and accepted most of their students for academic year 2012-13, therefore financial penalties on widening access are unlikely to be appropriate for 2012-13.
“More generally, the emphasis of outcome agreements for the future need to be on encouraging best practice among universities to ensure that there is real progress in helping more people from deprived backgrounds to gain access to higher education. The Funding Council will be working with universities to deliver this.
“While for the future, financial penalties cannot be completely ruled out, the emphasis of our approach will be on supporting and encouraging improvement rather than punishing failure.”
Universities Scotland has also raised serious concerns over use of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) as an indicator for widening access “that should not be overlooked” ahead of any potential penalties or legislation being introduced.
Application of the measure could culminate in rural areas suffering, added the representative body, on account of failure to align with SIMD criteria.
“Critically, although the SIMD datazones are small, they are not uniform and do not function at the level of the individual,” its briefing said. “There are anomalies within all SIMD datazones so the high-earning family in a large house on the periphery of an otherwise deprived area and the low-income family in a small home with no income other than child support may come to be treated identically.
“In addition to this generic issue, there are specific issues in identifying deprivation by SIMD category in rural areas which are large and where SIMD is not a robust indicator of disadvantage. There are parts ofScotlandin which there are no SIMD20 zones, including for example Shetland, so the introduction of targets which promoted recruitment of MD20 learners could have detrimental impacts on learners from parts of the country which do not include MD20 datazones.
“The SIMD’s limitations will become particularly concerning to universities if this measure is to be used in conjunction with penalties or legislation.”
According to the NUS Scotland report, the top two constituencies in Scotland for progression to higher education are Eastwood and Edinburgh Southern – with 68 per cent and 52.2 per cent of all school leavers going onto HE – and the bottom two Banffshire and Buchan Coastand Glasgow Provan, with 26 per cent and 24.9 per cent respectively.
Student leaders stressed legally binding and enforceable widening access agreements are now necessary if access to some of the country’s elite institutions is to be opened up to those from the most deprived backgrounds.
Robin Parker, NUS Scotland President, said: “If we can’t hold a mirror to our universities and see Scottish society then something is very wrong. We must protect free education in Scotland to open the door to achieving fair access.
“We hope over the next few years Scotland can yet again lead the way, and show that universities can recruit more talented people from poorer backgrounds, can improve standards through doing so, and ensure that university is open to those with the talent to do well at university not just those from particular backgrounds.”