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Publication - Report

A Blueprint for Fairness: Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access

Published: 14 Mar 2016
Part of:
Education
ISBN:
9781786520944

A Blueprint for Fairness presents a system wide plan to achieve equal access to higher education.

88 page PDF

319.8kB

88 page PDF

319.8kB

Contents
A Blueprint for Fairness: Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access
Executive Summary

88 page PDF

319.8kB

Executive Summary

Background

In the 2014-15 Programme for Government the Scottish Government set out its ambition that every child, irrespective of socioeconomic background, should have an equal chance of accessing higher education. This Commission on Widening Access was established to advise Ministers on the steps necessary to achieve this.

Our Philosophy

In our interim report, we observed that the consensus that equal access is an important objective can mask the reality that access is a divisive issue on which there exists a range of tensions and opposing viewpoints. We believe that this has hindered progress. Through this report the Commission has set out a clear national strategy for how the First Minister's vision of equal access can be achieved. We repeat again our beliefs on access:

  • Equal access is fundamentally about fairness
  • Equal access is a social good
  • Equal access is compatible with academic excellence
  • Equal access is an economic good

The inequality in higher education is unfair, damaging and unsustainable. There is therefore an undeniable case for change: Scotland has a moral, social and economic duty to achieve equal access. This philosophy is the lens through which the Commission has viewed its task.

Approach to the Task

In developing our recommendations the Commission gathered evidence from a wide range of sources. To inform our interim report we issued a Call for Evidence in June 2015, reviewed existing evidence and commissioned a literature review on barriers to fair access. We also held a series of consultation events and meetings across Scotland and took presentations from key stakeholders at Commission meetings including: students, care leavers, experts and practitioners. In the second half of our work, we held a series of expert groups, bringing together practitioners and professionals from a range of sectors and specialisms, to test and enrich our thinking as we began to shape our recommendations.

Placing Development in the Hands of the Experts

We have engaged with many practitioners from across all parts of the education system and have consistently been impressed with their expertise and dedication to fair access. They have engaged with, and enthusiastically supported, the Commission's work throughout and have shared with us their vision and ideas for bold and creative solutions to achieve equal access. Many of these ideas are reflected in our recommendations. For other areas we look with confidence to further engagement with the professionals to inform the shape of the solutions required.

The Final Report

The Commission's interim report took stock of where Scotland is on access to higher education. It identified and examined the main barriers and systemic issues that may be obstructing equal access and highlighted some of the models of best practice encountered by the Commission. Much of the evidence presented in the interim report forms the foundations for the recommendations in A Blueprint for Fairness. The two reports should therefore be read in conjunction as two parts of the same story. In this, our final report, we propose 34 recommendations which we believe will support Scotland to achieve the goal of equal access for those from deprived backgrounds or with a care experience. All of these are important and are discussed below; however, in the text below, we highlight a small number of foundational recommendations which reflect the bold action that we believe is necessary to deliver a step change in progress.

A System Wide Effort

In our interim report we concluded that socioeconomic inequality in higher education is a problem which spans the whole education system and beyond into wider social policy. Yet this Commission is the first body to have undertaken a holistic, strategic review of the problem and the contributions that can be made by each part of the system to bring about its resolution. It is also time to rebalance the focus from the perceived deficit in the individual to what more the system can do to support disadvantaged learners to succeed.

A systemic approach is therefore critical to drive progress. The report identifies a number of areas where early learning providers, schools, colleges and universities [1] need to work more closely together to deliver the best provision for learners (Recommendations 4, 10, 15, 16 and 18). However, at present, responsibility for delivering change and improvement on access rests with a number of different bodies across a range of sectors - we believe something more is needed. Our first recommendation is therefore for the appointment of a Commissioner for Fair Access to provide leadership, a voice for our most disadvantaged learners and a challenge - to all parts of the education system and Government - to do more and to push harder:

Recommendation 1: The Scottish Government should appoint a Commissioner for Fair Access by the end of 2016 to:

  • lead cohesive and system wide efforts to drive fair access in Scotland; acting as an advocate for access for disadvantaged learners and holding to account those with a role to play in achieving equal access.
  • coordinate and prioritise the development of a more substantial evidence base on the issues most pertinent to fair access, including the commissioning and publication of independent research. The Scottish Government should ensure an appropriate annual budget is made available to support this work.
  • publish, annually, a report to Ministers outlining the Commissioner's views on progress towards equal access in Scotland to inform development of effective policy at national, regional and institutional level.

Focusing on What Works

We have been clear from the outset that this Commission would build on the good practice that already exists. We have seen the success of bridging programmes, which provide a stepping stone from one part of the system to another, and recommend that these programmes are scaled up nationally to ensure they meet demand ( Recommendation 7). We also recognise the advances that have taken place with articulation pathways in Scotland and explore how this route can be expanded and developed going forward ( Recommendations 8 and 9). It is extremely important that the admissions processes of post-16 institutions recognise such alternative pathways to higher education and do not unnecessarily disadvantage those who choose them ( Recommendation 5).

Elsewhere there is very little evidence of the relative effectiveness of different access initiatives. This lack of robust evidence has presented the Commission with challenges in identifying the interventions that deliver most impact. Considerable sums of public money are invested in access initiatives both by the Scottish Funding Council and institutions themselves and it is vital that this is spent to best effect. A Framework for Fair Access will provide Scotland with an authoritative, evidence based framework to guide future access work and set the benchmark for access interventions going forward:

Recommendation 2: By 2018, the Commissioner for Fair Access, working with experts, should publish a Scottish Framework for Fair Access. This authoritative, evidence based framework should identify the most impactful forms of access activity at each stage of the learner journey, from early learning through to higher education and provide best practice guidelines on its delivery and evaluation.

Recommendation 3: Public funding for access programmes - either through specific external funding or funding from core budgets - should focus on programmes that are consistent with the Scottish Framework for Fair Access.

Improving Admissions

We are acutely aware of the potential impact of early years and school attainment on access, and there is a role for universities and colleges to play in supporting disadvantaged learners in the earlier stages of their learning ( Recommendations 15 and 16). We have recognised the importance of ensuring that learners can access key Highers ( Recommendation 18) and have access to personalised information, advice and guidance throughout their education journey ( Recommendations 17 and 20).

All of this, however, will have little impact on fair access unless we ensure that admissions systems do not perpetuate the disadvantages learners have faced earlier in life but instead provide those who have the potential with the opportunity to succeed. We know that in many cases entry requirements have risen well beyond what is required to succeed in degree level study and that there is compelling evidence that the school attainment of disadvantaged learners often does not reflect their full potential. The introduction of access thresholds for all degree courses in Scotland will expand the pool of applicants from deprived backgrounds and more importantly will provide talented young people with the opportunity to realise their full potential:

Recommendation 11: By 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. These access thresholds should be separate to standard entrance requirements and set as ambitiously as possible, at a level which accurately reflects the minimum academic standard and subject knowledge necessary to successfully complete a degree programme.

Recommendation 12: All universities should be as open and transparent as possible over their use of access thresholds and wider contextual admissions policies. In particular, they should seek to maximise applications from disadvantaged learners by proactively promoting the access thresholds to the relevant schools, pupils, parents, local authorities and teachers.

Grades are not the only factor which impacts on the fairness of admissions processes: more work is needed to understand the use of non-academic factors in admissions and their impact on disadvantaged learners ( Recommendation 14). Entry grades are also a factor in university rankings, which impact significantly on the reputation of institutions and their ability to generate income. Engagement with those compiling rankings should be undertaken to ensure greater priority is given to socioeconomic diversity when assessing universities ( Recommendation 13).

Care Experience

The Commission is conscious that the particular challenges faced by those with a care experience, both by their nature and magnitude, set this group of learners apart. Scotland must therefore be much bolder in its ambition for, and commitment to, those with care experience if we are to deliver fairness for this group of learners. We believe that an entitlement system should be introduced for care experienced learners, along with enhanced bursary and a more flexible package of student support:

Recommendation 21: By 2017, those with a care experience, who meet the access threshold should be entitled to the offer of a place at a Scottish university. Entitlement should also apply to those with a care experience who have had to take a break from higher education and wish to return. Learners should be assessed against minimum entry level in 2017 and the access threshold thereafter.

Recommendation 22: The Scottish Government should replace student living costs loans with a non-repayable bursary and provide a more flexible package of student support for learners with a care experience from academic year 2017/18.

We have set an immediate priority for the Commissioner for Fair Access to develop better evidence on the impact of student finance on access and retention for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds to inform future policy in this area ( Recommendation 19).

Driving Progress

It is essential that Scotland makes the best use of the public funds available to support access ( Recommendations 24 and 25). The Commission has discussed more innovative approaches to funding that could better target funds to support fair access - such options should be explored going forward ( Recommendation 26). Regulation will also play a key role in driving progress. The Scottish Funding Council ( SFC) should make more extensive use of their existing regulatory powers, where appropriate ( Recommendation 27) and the Scottish Government should ensure that objectives relating to fair access are embedded in the regulatory frameworks of other agencies with a role to play in advancing equal access ( Recommendation 28).

The use of data and analysis is fundamental to supporting fair access. We must make best use of the data we already have as well as developing new systems and analyses ( Recommendation 30). The use of a unique learner number across all education will be key in our ability to track learners and share data to support fair access going forward ( Recommendation 29). The Commission recognises the value of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation ( SIMD) as a marker for deprivation and it is our view that it should continue to be used for tracking, monitoring and targets relating to fair access in the coming years. But we also recognise that a more individualised approach to identify those from disadvantaged backgrounds is essential when providing support or making decisions about individual learners. We have recommended the development of a robust and consistent approach to this across institutions ( Recommendation 31).

Pace and focus must be maintained. We have therefore proposed a set of targets which make clear our expectation of the progress that is necessary, and achievable, by different sectors and institutions, in the intervening years if the ambition of equal access is to be achieved:

Recommendation 32: The Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council should implement the following targets to drive forward the delivery of equal access in Scotland:

To realise the First Minister's ambition of equality of access to higher education in Scotland:

  • By 2030, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education. Equality of access should be seen in both the college sector and the university sector.

To drive progress toward this goal:

  • By 2021, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 16% of full-time first-degree entrants to Scottish universities as a whole.
  • By 2021, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 10% of full-time first degree entrants to every individual Scottish university.
  • By 2026, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 18% of full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities as a whole.
  • In 2022, the target of 10% for individual Scottish universities should be reviewed and a higher level target should be

A Blueprint for Fairness

This is our Blueprint for Fairness - a system-wide plan for fair access in Scotland. The recommendations within this report are achievable and can deliver equal access within a generation. It is Scotland's moral, social and economic duty to make this a reality for today's children.

Commissioner for Fair Access

Recommendation 1: The Scottish Government should appoint a Commissioner for Fair Access by the end of 2016 to:

  • lead cohesive and system wide efforts to drive fair access in Scotland; acting as an advocate for access for disadvantaged learners and holding to account those with a role to play in achieving equal access.
  • coordinate and prioritise the development of a more substantial evidence base on the issues most pertinent to fair access, including the commissioning and publication of independent research. The Scottish Government should ensure an appropriate annual budget is made available to support this work.
  • publish, annually, a report to Ministers outlining the Commissioner's views on progress towards equal access in Scotland to inform development of effective policy at national, regional and institutional level.

Identifying and Sharing Good Practice

Recommendation 2: By 2018, the Commissioner for Fair Access, working with experts, should publish a Scottish Framework for Fair Access. This authoritative, evidence based framework should identify the most impactful forms of access activity at each stage of the learner journey, from early learning through to higher education and provide best practice guidelines on its delivery and evaluation.

Recommendation 3: Public funding for access programmes - either through specific external funding or funding from core budgets - should focus on programmes that are consistent with the Scottish Framework for Fair Access.

Coordinating the Delivery of What Works

Recommendation 4: Universities, colleges, local authorities, schools, SFC funded access programmes and early years providers should work together to deliver a coordinated approach to access which removes duplication and provides a coherent and comprehensive offer to learners.

Flexible Transitions

Recommendation 5: Universities should ensure their admissions processes and entry requirements are based on a strong educational rationale and are not unnecessarily prescriptive, to the detriment of learners who take advantage of the availability of a more flexible range of pathways. This should be monitored by the SFC through the outcome agreement process.

Recommendation 6: The Scottish Government, working with key stakeholders, should ensure the key transitions phases around SCQF levels 6 to 8 are better used to provide students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the qualifications and experiences required to support fair access.

Bridging Programmes

Recommendation 7: The Scottish Funding Council, working with professionals, should develop a model of how bridging programmes can be expanded nationally to match need.

Articulation

Recommendation 8: The SFC should seek more demanding articulation targets from those universities that have not traditionally been significant players in articulation.

Recommendation 9: Universities colleges and the SFC should closely monitor the expansion of articulation to ensure it continues to support disadvantaged learners to progress to degree level study. Should this not be the case, a proportion of articulation places should be prioritised for disadvantaged learners.

Recommendation 10: The Scottish Funding Council, working with universities and colleges, should explore more efficient, flexible and learner centred models of articulation which provide learners with the choice of a broader range of institutions and courses.

Access Thresholds for Admissions

Recommendation 11: By 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. These access thresholds should be separate to standard entrance requirements and set as ambitiously as possible, at a level which accurately reflects the minimum academic standard and subject knowledge necessary to successfully complete a degree programme.

Recommendation 12: All universities should be as open and transparent as possible over their use of access thresholds and wider contextual admissions policies. In particular, they should seek to maximise applications from disadvantaged learners by proactively promoting the access thresholds to the relevant schools, pupils, parents, local authorities and teachers.

Recommendation 13: The Commissioner for Fair Access, should engage with those compiling key university rankings to ensure greater priority is given to socioeconomic diversity within the rankings and to ensure that institutions who take the actions necessary to achieve fair access are not penalised.

Non-Academic Factors in Admissions

Recommendation 14: The SFC should undertake an independent review of the processes - such as personal statements and interviews - that are used to evaluate non-academic factors in applications, with the aim of assessing whether, and to what extent, they unfairly disadvantage access applicants.

Early Years

Recommendation 15: Univesities and colleges should increase engagement with our youngest children and their families as part of the provision of a coordinated package of support for those in our most deprived communities in line with Recommendation 4.

School Attainment

Recommendation 16: Universities, working with schools, should take greater responsibility for the development of the pool of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds by delivering academically based programmes to support highly able learners, who are at risk of not fulfilling their academic potential.

Information, Advice and Guidance

Recommendation 17: SDS and schools should work together to provide a more coordinated, tailored offer of information, advice and guidance to disadvantaged learners at key transition phases throughout their education.

Access to Key Subjects

Recommendation 18: Universities, colleges and local authorities should work together to provide access to a range of Higher and Advanced Higher subjects, which ensures that those from disadvantaged backgrounds or living in rural areas are not restricted in their ability to access higher education by the subject choices available to them.

Financial Support for Learners

Recommendation 19: The Commissioner for Fair Access should commission research, within three months of appointment, to assess how student finance impacts on the participation of disadvantaged learners in higher education.

Recommendation 20: Disadvantaged learners and their parents, should be provided with clear, accurate information on both the availability of student finance and the conditions for repayment. This should be taken forward by the bodies identified in Recommendation 17 and the Student Awards Agency Scotland.

Supporting those with Care Experience

Recommendation 21: By 2017, those with a care experience, who meet the access threshold should be entitled to the offer of a place at a Scottish university. Entitlement should also apply to those with a care experience who have had to take a break from higher education and wish to return. Learners should be assessed against minimum entry level in 2017 and 2018 and the access threshold thereafter.

Recommendation 22: The Scottish Government should replace student living costs loans with a non-repayable bursary and provide a more flexible package of student support for learners with a care experience from academic year 2017/18.

Recommendation 23: The Scottish Government should develop an approach to allow those with a care experience to be identified from early years to post-school and on to employment to enable additional support, for example, a marker or a flag. Young people with care experience must be included in the development of how this would be used and shared.

Funding

Recommendation 24: The SFC should review the best use of its funds, specifically the Access and Retention Fund, to deliver the implementation of the Commission's recommendations.

Recommendation 25: The SFC should monitor how institution spend from core funding is being used to support access through the Outcome Agreement process.

Recommendation 26: By 2021, the SFC, in consultation with the Scottish Government, should explore options for more targeted funding models to better support the recruitment and retention of greater numbers of access students.

Regulation

Recommendation 27: The SFC should make more extensive use of their existing regulatory powers, where appropriate, to drive greater progress. The Scottish Government should ensure that it provides the SFC with the necessary mandate to take this action.

Recommendation 28: The Scottish Government should ensure that objectives relating to fair access are embedded in the regulatory frameworks of other agencies/public bodies with a role to play in advancing equal access.

Better Use of Data to Support Fair Access

Recommendation 29: The Scottish Government should improve mechanisms to track learners and share data to support fair access. Specifically, the Government should

  • lead the work necessary to develop and implement the use of a unique learner number to be used to track learners' progress from early learning, throughout education and onwards into employment.
  • review data access arrangements to provide a national process for the provision of information to practitioners and policy makers working on fair access. This review should consider access to and sharing of data held by local authorities, schools, UCAS and SAAS.

Recommendation 30: The Scottish Funding Council and the Scottish Government should enhance the analyses and publication of data on fair access.

Measures to Identify Access Learners

Recommendation 31: The Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council, working with key stakeholders, should develop a consistent and robust set of measures to identify access students by 2018.

Targets

Recommendation 32: The Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council should implement the following targets to drive forward the delivery of equal access in Scotland:

To realise the First Minister's ambition of equality of access to higher education in Scotland:

  • By 2030, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education. Equality of access should be seen in both the college sector and the university sector.

To drive progress toward this goal:

  • By 2021, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 16% of full-time first degree entrants to Scottish HEIs as a whole.
  • By 2021, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 10% of full-time first degree entrants to every individual Scottish university.
  • By 2026, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 18% of full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities as a whole.
  • In 2022, the target of 10% for individual Scottish universities should be reviewed and a higher level target should be considered for the subsequent years.

Agenda for the Future

Recommendation 33: The Commissioner for Fair Access should:

  • consider what further work is required to support equal access for other groups of learners and within specific degree subjects.
  • consider what further work is required to support equal outcomes after study for those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with a care experience.

Final Recommendation

Recommendation 34: The Scottish Government should report on progress against the recommendations it accepts from this report, 12 months after issuing its response. Thereafter, progress towards equal access should be reported on annually by the Commissioner for Fair Access.


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