Universities and government ‘must be bolder’ on widening access to meet ambition

Written by Tom Freeman on 13 December 2017 in News

Progress on widening access to university so far is “steady” but “may not be sufficient”, says commissioner

Glasgow Caledonian University - credit Jisc Infonet

Efforts to get more people from deprived backgrounds into university must be bolder and more radical, Scotland’s Commissioner for Fair Access has said.

Professor Sir Peter Scott’s first annual report recommended universities be more radical in plans to lower admissions criteria for disadvantaged students.

It also called on the Scottish Government to provide extra funded places and play “a more proactive role” in shaping a national strategy.

Scott was appointed a year ago to monitor progress against targets for equal access recommended in a review led by Dame Ruth Silver.

These include having 20 per cent of all students from the most deprived postcodes in Scotland by 2030.

Scott said progress so far was “steady” but “may not be sufficient”.

“Even without the goad of politically mandated targets there is a strong commitment to widening access in Scottish higher education,” he said.

“However, meeting institutional targets may require the second - more radical or step-change - approach.”

A report by principals’ body Universities Scotland in November revealed how the 19 HE institutions plan to widen access, including changing admissions criteria, linking more with colleges and establishing more bridging programmes from school.

Scott’s report praised their “ambitious efforts” but challenged them to be bolder.

“Contextual admissions are the most powerful instrument available to universities to promote fairer access but more radical action is required in terms of grade adjustments, and more consistent and transparent processes are needed,” it said.

While most colleges and post-1992 universities have “made good progress”, others including some of the ancient universities “still have much further to go”, Scott said.

A spokesperson for Universities Scotland called the report “both challenging, interesting and useful”.

“Universities will give his set of 23 new recommendations urgent and full consideration,” the spokesperson told Holyrood.

“On first sight, there appears to be lots there that echoes the actions that universities set out for themselves in November.

“The commissioner also calls for greater clarity on targets and data. We agree that would be helpful. There are some data that universities would find really helpful in setting entry grades to support access and it would be helpful to get this from government as a matter of priority.”

Extra places should not come at the cost of opportunities for bright children from middle class backgrounds, according to Universities Scotland.

“For us, the key consideration in creating any extra places, is that they are fully funded places,” the spokesperson said.

“That is vital to ensuring that universities can invest the necessary resource in every single student to provide the full range of support services which students depend on whilst at university, in addition to their education.”

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