Scotland has a ‘moral, social and economic duty’ to tackle equal access to university

Written by Tom Freeman on 12 November 2015 in News

First interim report from the Commission on Widening Access calls for focus on barriers to education

All parts of the education system must work together to remove the barriers preventing deprived students from accessing university, an interim report by Scotland’s Commission on Widening Access has warned.

In its first publication, the Commission recommends work on tackling inequality in education must be refocused from the “deficit in the individual” to removing systemic “barriers to access” such as low aspirations, cultural barriers and unclear career and subject advice.

Inequality in higher education is “unfair, damaging and unsustainable,” it says. “Scotland has a moral, social and economic duty to achieve equality of access. This philosophy is the lens through which the Commission will view the remainder of its task.”


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In her introduction, commission chair Dame Ruth Silver said the report was a “first step” on a route to inequality.

“We have found that the present inequities are the result of a very complex mix of social, economic and educational factors. For this reason, any examination of this issue which concludes that inequality can be fixed in a single part of the system is bound to fail,” she said.

Vonnie Sandlan, president of NUS Scotland, who sits on the commission, said the report was a “clear and ambitious” marker of where Scotland is in tackling the issue.

“We know that education is transformative, for individuals, their communities, and Scotland as a whole. The responsibility to ensure that education is available for all is incumbent on us all, and this report starts the process of ensuring we know what works and who needs to take action,” she said.

Professor Pete Downes, Convener of Universities Scotland, said he expected the principals to be challenged by the commission over the coming months. 

“However, we are encouraged that the interim report recognises that there is lots of good practice in the sector and that progress on widening access is already being made. The partnership approach, which has been central to the Commission so far, will also be crucial to its success in achieving new levels of widening access," he said.

The commission welcomed the increased use of contextual admissions, but a Universities Scotland spokesperson said: “Universities will always be looking for the best and brightest applicants - our quality and excellence is very important to us and absolutely will not be compromised - but we are open-minded about what best and brightest actually means."

The Commission on Widening Access was set up by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to look at how people from all backgrounds could have equal access to university.

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