We have responded to the call for evidence by the Scottish Government’s Commission on Widening Access issued on 23 June 2015.
We welcome the Commission on Widening Access and are fully supportive of the work it is taking forward. We particularly welcome the opportunity it creates for Scotland to take a truly holistic and joined-up look at the challenge of widening access for the first time.
Key points from our written evidence:
- Widening access is well established as a core activity for Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions which means a deeply-held commitment to addressing underrepresentation within the student body. There has been steady progress at a sector level as well as notable successes at institutional level and on specific projects. Universities want to build on progress already made and deliver more.
- To us, underrepresentation includes people from socio-economically deprived backgrounds and care leavers and extends to other protected characteristics.
- We believe barriers to access are wide-ranging and not mutually exclusive. We understand the main barriers include differential educational attainment (attainment gap); information, advice and guidance (IAG); availability of places; school subject choice; and funding for widening access.
- Recent UCAS data over ten years shows a 50 per cent increase in applications from people living in SIMD20 areas to 15.1 per cent of all applications. This increase is positive and marks a fall in the proportional difference between most and least deprived areas. However in 2015 people from the most advantaged areas of Scotland are still three and a half times more likely to apply.
- Widening access and retention have to go hand-in-hand as a responsibility to the student. Retention is a complex issue. The data show lower rates of retention for SIMD40 students but at an individual level research shows that with the right support underrepresented students can achieve more academically than their more advantaged peers.
On the identification and scaling up of best practice:
- We believe a number of lessons can be learned from Scottish access programmes, including programmes which are integrated with other practices are more beneficial, e.g. summer schools, which can lead to compensated admissions awards; more could be done to support teachers, parents and college advisers in giving fair, accurate and up-to-date advice; and programmes which have sustained funding and clear futures are able to steadily embed practice.
- We have identified a number of examples of international practice in widening access and have submitted a separate paper on these to the Commission.
- Universities’ own responses to the Commission will outline specific opportunities for scaling up access programmes, but we believe Summer Schools, online support and development, and school programmes could all be scaled up to regional or national levels.
On data and measures:
- We would like to see a broader metric or set of metrics used to measure progress. Universities Scotland has developed a measurement framework with input from practitioners in admissions and widening participation, the SFC and others.
- The sector is almost universally committed to the use contextual admissions. There is wide variation in what data universities use as part of contextual admissions reflecting the various stages different institutions have adopted this practice. There are shared concerns about the availability and quality of data available to inform contextual admissions which are currently being resolved with support from Scottish Government. This is important as institutions need to rely on the data.
- We are supportive of monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of existing widening access programmes and initiatives. It is important to recognise there are challenges in determining causal links in projects that span many formative years of a child’s education. A helpful development would be to explore the interoperability of Scottish Candidate Numbers with Unique Learner Numbers (which the Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Project is trying to introduce to higher education). This would enable end-to-end tracking of widening access participants supporting more effective long-term evaluation.