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Progress on Scottish widening access targets may have stalled, warns Commissioner

The rate of progress towards widening access targets in Scottish higher education has slowed so much that there are now "fewer grounds for optimism" that they will be achieved, the Commissioner for Fair Access has warned.

The past year has seen a gain of just 0.2 percentage points towards the next interim goal set by the Scottish government of 18 per cent of full-time first-degree Scottish domiciled entrants coming from the 20 per cent most deprived communities by 2026, Sir Peter Scott's annual report says. This compares with a gain of 1.8 percentage points in the previous year.

As a result, "there may now be fewer grounds for optimism" for meeting either the interim target or the final goal of 20 per cent of all HE entrants coming from the 20 per cent most deprived communities by 2030, the report says.

Access gains will be harder to achieve due to measures that the government, SQA, Scottish Funding Council and individual institutions have taken to address the Covid-19 pandemic, it adds.

The report says "school closures, the cancellation of examinations (and their replacement by teacher assessments) and the shift from face-to-face to online teaching in universities, although inevitable, are likely to have negative consequences for fair access.

"These measures will exacerbate the existing inequalities between school pupils, potential higher education applicants and students in terms of access to material and financial resources. Vigorous action needs to be taken to prevent any loss of momentum or reduction of focus on fair access".

Sir Peter says, however, it is good to be able to report that the first interim target set for 2021, of 16 per cent of entrants coming from the 20 per cent most deprived communities, was effectively hit two years early.

His report notes the "significant achievement" that all universities have now developed, and published on their websites, minimum entry requirements (MERs) for applicants from Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) areas and those suffering from other forms of disadvantage. 

Excellent work continues to be undertaken in terms of outreach and bridging programmes, by individual
universities, and Scottish Further and SFC, supported regional groups and special initiatives.

But progress towards allowing Higher National applicants for first-degree courses suitable credit continues to be slow, despite the work of the National Articulation Forum.  Only half receive advanced standing, and a substantial number receive no credit at all, the report says.

Commenting on the report, Mary Senior, Scotland University and College Union official, said: "The commissioner is right to highlight the challenges that the lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic are placing on efforts to meet widening access targets. Students from poorer backgrounds don't all have the same access to spaces to study, broadband or the equipment needed to access online learning opportunities. Not all parents and guardians are able to provide, or have the confidence to provide, the nurturing and support required for home learning.

"The financial challenges that the pandemic is placing on universities also raises real concerns about how widening access can remain a priority. Students from poorer backgrounds need more support and resources from lecturers and student support staff, not less and universities must continue to provide the teaching and support than enables students to access, and progress successfully through, university education."

A Universities Scotland spokesperson said: “Sir Peter’s report reinforces that universities are not only on track but ahead of schedule to meet the 2021 interim targets on widening access. That’s a very positive position to be in just now but we absolutely agree that there’s no opportunity to pause there; it is only going to get harder and he is right to highlight that the coronavirus pandemic poses a range of additional obstacles to widening access at all levels of the education system.

"Universities were quick to offer reassurance in early April that the pandemic would not divert their efforts and we’ve made widening access a focus of our discussions with the SQA over alternatives to the exam diet in schools. Sir Peter’s emphasis on the need to sustain funding to support widening access is very welcome."