Widening access to Higher Education ‘needs to look beyond SIMD20’

Written by Carolyn Scott on 8 December 2017 in Feature

Event report: limits measuring deprivation by postcode 

In her 2014 Programme for Government, Nicola Sturgeon delivered perhaps one of the most ambitious goals around attainment and widening access to education: 

“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.”

In measuring this, Sturgeon’s target is for 20 per cent of University entrants would come from the most deprived 20 per cent of the country by 2030.

That, in itself, is a troublesome indicator, Holyrood’s Widening Access to HE in 2018 event heard.

The Scottish Government's Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) is the basis for a quantitative measure for attainment. SIMD20 refers to that most deprived 20 per cent of the country that the First Minister refers to, but this is a regional identifier as it uses postcodes. 

There may be some students living in a deprived area that are not from a disadvantaged background, and some students in very affluent areas that themselves do come from a disadvantaged background. 

Dr Elisabet Weedon, Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Education, Inclusion and Diversity at the University of Edinburgh, told the Holyrood’s event that relying on SIMD data for assessing access to education not only posed regional problems, but could result in disabled students and care experienced students being excluded. 

“There’s a danger that you forget that there are different types of impairments and different social backgrounds of those students. I think that’s a big challenge, that we need to look more deeply at the differences between students.”

Weedon highlighted data that shows that at university level, a high proportion of students with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia tend to come from a better off background, while data from schools shows an even spread of students with dyslexia across the SIMD background. 

“So what happens to the students with specific learning backgrounds who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds? What happens to them in terms of gaining access?” Weedon posed. 

Lesley Dunbar from the Scottish Wider Access Programme suggested it was “a little bit depressing” to still be talking about the flawed nature of the SIMD data: “We seem to have been talking about this for years and we don’t seem to be able to get past it.”

Dr Weedon suggested that perhaps a new discussion was needed on what could replace or supplement SIMD data to give a broader view of access needs. 

Shona Littlejohn, depute director for Student Experience and Widening Access at The Open University in Scotland, suggested that higher education institutions themselves need to take ownership of widening access by looking beyond SIMD20 data: “I think the idea of using a broader range of measures is really important, SIMD20 doesn’t really capture that broader approach to widening access.” 

Littlejohn added that while quantitative measures are needed to communicate what institutions are doing and achieving in terms of access, it needed to be supplemented by a more personal approach at institution level. 

“If we are truly committed to access then, in addition to the external reporting that we need to do, how do we also genuinely get a real handle on our own data? How do we genuinely understand what’s going on in our own institutions? How do we take ownership for that performance and what widening access means to us? And how do we develop a narrative that may include quantitative data, but also include qualitative data.” 

The Holyrood summit heard of numerous examples of initiatives that universities and communities had developed to widen access and supporting new pathways to university, from the Advanced Higher Hub at Glasgow Caledonian University to St Andrews University’s outreach in further education. 

But if widening access is judged purely on SIMD data, then many people will remain left behind. As David Faith, Policy and Learning Coordinator, Who Cares? Scotland highlighted:  “SIMD is not a good indicator for care experienced students. If you’re only looking at SIMD you’re definitely going to miss out a huge number of care experienced students.”

Whether SIMD is effective or not, those are the targets in place that Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions are working to. A recent report by principals’ body Universities Scotland promised to improve access through changing admissions criteria, linking more with colleges and, establishing more bridging programmes from school.

But if its success or failure is measured using SIMD, it could be hard to know how many of today’s babies will miss out on Sturgeon’s ambition.




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