Widening access – the struggle for progress

Most people working in higher education will agree that one of the biggest crimes we can commit is to deny an education to someone with the talent and aptitude to benefit from it. It is also true to say that in 2016 more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are in our universities than would have been the case, or would even have been conceivable, a generation or two ago. And yet, as the most recent report on access has reminded us, higher education ‘disproportionately benefits those in our most affiluent communities, meaning that, through accident of birth, those in our most disadvantaged communities have nothing like an equal chance to realise their potential.’

Scotland’s Commission on Widening Access, chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, has set out four guiding principles for public policy 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

These principles seem obvious enough until you realise that, in practice, much of the system doesn’t support them. Academics worry about standards, middle class parents worry about their children being displaced, funding and resources don’t sufficiently target disadvantage. Too many people believe it’s all a matter of free tuition, when almost all of the evidence shows that fees are not the main barrier to widening access.

The Commission chaired by Dame Ruth makes a number of very interesting and potentially exciting recommendations (to some of which I shall return in future), but perhaps the one that will be seen as most difficult is this:

‘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 re ects the minimum academic standard and subject knowledge necessary to successfully complete a degree programme.’

This recommendation is about contextual admissions, under which minimum attainment thresholds are set for each course to ensure that students are able to manage the syllabus, but with a recognition that there should be some compensation at the point of entry for applicants who have come from less well resourced schools. In other words, entry requirements for access students should be lower than for other applicants, while maintaining the basic thresholds.

A university education is not as right per se. But having the same opportunity of access to it regardless of background is a right, and a civilised society should ensure that it is protected. Contextual admissions are an indispensable tool in progressing to such a society. I hope that this recommendation will be debated and the best approach assessed; but I hope it will not be resisted.

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3 Comments on “Widening access – the struggle for progress”

  1. Vincent Says:

    In Ireland during the 90’s when I did my degree as a mature student the EU set up a fund for mature students to access 3rd level. The Dublin civil service set such difficulties and hurdles to get at this funding that they ended up sending most of it back. You see they thought once it arrived to Ireland the civil servants could do as they liked with it, deploying it in ways that the fund wasn’t designated. So the EU demanded it back.
    Of course when this cash first arrived the nasty little wheeze of the covenants was up and running.
    Did you know that the moneys lost to the exchequer through the covenants by those that deployed it actually covered the intake for free tuition.
    When systems are in place that game the outcome, and when the least as in the dole/minimum wage rather than the student living costs is seen as better than most deserve you will always have issues.
    In a way it’s actually rather a pity you weren’t about a bit more for you’d see Labour do exactly the opposite -going some way out of their way- to those guidelines set out by Ruth Silver.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Oh, and if the State is supporting university’s and university attendance in any way, then it becomes a Right to and for all.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    All very welcome, however the Report seems to focus exclusively on class, overlooking gender and race…


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