Building from the Blueprint: Fair access one year on

Dr Kirsty Conlon is Head of Learning & Teaching and Widening Access at Universities Scotland. Kirsty is working with three Principals from across the sector to deliver universities’ response to the Blueprint for Fair Access, published in 2016.

Kirsty writes:

“March 2017 marks a year since the Blueprint for Fair Access was published by Dame Ruth Silver and the Scottish Government. The Blueprint set out 34 recommendations aimed at delivering on the First Minister’s ambition that by 2030 children from the poorest 20 per cent of areas would make up 20 per cent of entrants to university.

We took on the challenge to act more boldly when it comes to fair access. We’re doing that in three broad areas:

  1. on admissions and entry requirements;
  1. on articulation and ways to increase full credit given and to increase the range of options when moving from college into university, and;
  1. on bridging programmes, to support the move from school to university and to sometimes ‘top-up’ the learning in between.

Not all of the recommendations point to universities but university leaders put together a response in Futures not Backgrounds in August last year that we believe will address 17 of them.

Twelve months on from the Blueprint and three working groups Universities Scotland set up to take the recommendations forward, are each making headway. The admissions group is led by Professor Sally Mapstone of the University of St Andrews. It was quick to agree that the use of contextual admissions, to support access thresholds, needs to be greatly simplified if it is to be understood and have a real chance of offering benefit to under-represented students, their teachers and parents. The group is now pushing to agree a ‘core’ set of contextual indicators and agree key terms like ‘minimum requirements’ across all universities. Sorting this out would then form the basis of a coordinated public information campaign. The group is also closely looking into research that has mapped successful student outcomes to contextual indicators. This should provide evidence to help universities know how bold they can be when setting access thresholds and adjusting offers to students, confident in the knowledge that the students should still be able to thrive. This is crucial as the real measure of success in the fair access agenda is successful student outcomes.

The articulation group, led by Susan Stewart, Director of the Open University in Scotland, has its sleeves rolled-up and head-down to wade through a vast array of articulation data at subject-level, which has not been really been looked at before. The group expects to use this to identify where there are gaps in articulation pathways in certain subjects and to build from there. The group is also open-minded on whether there are other qualifications, in addition to Higher Nationals, that can be used to ‘articulate’ into university.

The bridging programme group led by Professor Petra Wend from Queen Margaret University is mapping the many bridging programmes offered across Scotland.  The group will use this to see where there are a lack of opportunities and how universities can join up activities to give learners more choices.

The goal is for each of the groups to report back to other universities by the end of June. We’ll continue to work closely with all stakeholders as we fully subscribe to the holistic approach to closing the attainment gap and widening access that was originally envisaged when the Commission was established. NUS Scotland, the Funding Council, colleges, schools and the admissions service are our partners on the working groups, amongst others.

The Blueprint was ambitious. Its first target, to appoint a Commissioner by the end of 2016, was achieved successfully but the Blueprint laid down a number of major milestones, some of which are pointed at universities and are approaching at pace. Last year we began the process of building from the Blueprint with energy, with determination and with conviction across the sector. One year on and there is no sign of that abating.”