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Widening access is 'wider than universities'

Widening access is 'wider than universities'

The latest stats show a small increase in students from the poorest neighbourhoods entering university. This will be pleasing news for those taking part in the first year of funded additional places, ring-fenced by the Scottish Government, to seven higher education institutions.

But the means of collecting data on deprivation needs to be improved, according to Petra Wend, principal of Queen Margaret University (QMU) who believes ongoing work to improve access to higher education is hampered by only using the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), which uses postcode areas as indicators. “Postcode is simply not a fair method of looking at deprivation. It is much more down to the individual and the individual’s background, and their family. One example is Holyrood Palace is in a SIMD 20 postcode, so it’s really important we start to look at other measures as well,” she says, adding Universities Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council are looking at a range of alternatives “to see if we can come up with something more reflective of what we have to achieve in Scotland.”

Scottish universities are “totally committed to widening access”, says Wend, and Pete Downes, Universities Scotland convenor, says this is not exclusive to achieving ambitions of global excellence. As principal of Dundee University, he says his institution is committed to its location, which is one of the most deprived cities in the UK. “Our motive, if you like, is about the Patrick Geddes quote: ‘think globally, act locally’. We have a fantastic international reputation, but we are also part of a city we’re committed to in terms of economic development. We’re driving all three of the key post-industrial areas of economic recovery in the city, in terms of our key disciplines. We’re very aware of the high proportion of young people who come from deprived backgrounds. As a consequence, we’ve been very committed to the widening access agenda.” 

 “It is really all about giving children the options to do what is right for them." 

Dundee has been running a summer school for nearly 20 years, he says, to encourage applicants from the city. Around 1500 people have gone on to study at the university from the scheme, according to Downes. “Now with the government’s widening access funded numbers, we bid for a high number, we were ambitious, we filled all those places, we bid for even higher numbers so we’re contributing in that way too. Our plan is those students who come in through that route get access to a university that’s fully engaged internationally,” he says.

Wend’s QMU has also pioneered new approaches. The Academies programme works with further education and local authorities to widen options for school children from 16 in low-achieving schools. Pupils can access learning through the programme at college and university while remaining at school. “It is really all about giving children the options to do what is right for them. Around a third go directly into work, a third go to college and a third go to university. Giving them the options. But it is not easy, it needs a lot of support, and we’ve seen now the first children, well, they’re not children anymore, going into second-year university. They need additional support, some of them, so it’s not easy,” she says. 
Another initiative is the Children’s University, which is run by QMU in the east of Scotland and  the University of Strathclyde in the west. It provides opportunities for children between seven and 14 to do free extracurricular activities at galleries, museums and other alternative learning providers to work towards a university-accredited award. There are now several thousand children participating through QMU and the first graduation ceremony was held in January. “The important thing is it’s not only the children, it’s getting the parents into the university and demystifying what universities are about. So they are not simply by family background, by financial background, postcode background, peer pressure made to feel university is not an option for them,” says Wend. 

“By the age of five, there is a ten to thirteen-month gap in literacy and numeracy levels from Scotland’s least advantaged backgrounds."

Linking work in further and higher education to schools is reflected in the recommendations of the Wood Commission into Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce, which published its recommendations in 2013. The agenda is getting some traction, according to educationalist Keir Bloomer, because schools are starting to show some flexibility towards collaboration with colleges, supported by Skills Development Scotland. “Trouble is, this is an area schools are not strong on. They know a lot about university because we’ve all been there. That straightforward academic pathway, schools know how to steer young people successfully through. They are less well-versed in the actually very complicated scene of vocational education and training, and more needs to be done to help them,” he says.

Wend says collaboration is needed in widening higher education participation too, for example the makeup of the new commission on widening access, which will be chaired by Dame Silver.  “The government is setting up the widening participation commission. We haven’t had an announcement yet on who is on it, but what my plea would be is you don’t only get universities on it, but also schools on it, parents on it, experts in the attainment gap on it. It needs to be a holistic approach,” she says. 

Emergent thinking suggests the early years are the key to closing the attainment gap and it is gaining an audience among politicians, according to Bloomer. “We actually need a much more properly thought-out coherent support system, especially for those in danger of failure, from birth or indeed before birth,” he says.
Wend agrees. “By the age of five, there is a ten to thirteen-month gap in literacy and numeracy levels from Scotland’s least advantaged backgrounds compared to a child from the most advantaged background. And it gets worse and worse the more they go through school. A lot is being done by universities in respect of that. All universities work in primary schools, have outreach activities. We’re doing all of that, but unless everyone is involved in trying to lower the attainment gap, it’s not going to work.”

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