Progress on HE access in Scotland 'not spectacular', says commissioner

13th December 2017 at 14:09
In his first report, Professor Peter Scott said it was 'largely because of colleges that significant progress has been made to increasing' HE participation

Scotland’s widening access commissioner has called on universities to commit to substantially increasing the proportion of transferring college students that get full credit for their studies.

In his first annual report, Professor Sir Peter Scott said when it came to access to higher education, “significant but not spectacular progress has been made”

Through articulation, Scottish college students who have completed an HND or HNC qualification should be able to enter straight into the second or even the third year of a university degree course. And while this works successfully on dozens of courses across the country, Tes has previously reported on the large number of students who get no or limited credit for their prior study.

In the report, published today, Professor Scott said half of HN students who progress were only admitted to the first year. “In effect, they have to start from the beginning – and more than three-quarters of articulation is done by six universities. The SFC has indicated that 75 per cent of HN students who progress to degrees should receive full credit. To achieve even this, a step-change will be needed,” he said, stressing the current position was “unacceptable”.

'Without exception'

He stressed all HND students, “without exception”, should be allowed to transfer straight into the second year of a degree – and universities should commit to substantially increasing the number of transferring HN students they admit, offering the necessary support. “In the case of universities with insufficient HN applicants to support such an expansion, active measures should be taken by establishing stronger links with local colleges to increase the supply. If voluntary action by universities is inadequate, the [Scottish Funding Council (SFC)] should consider introducing institutional targets for articulation, enforced through outcome agreements.”

Scotland’s colleges deliver a large proportion of the country’s HE provision, mostly through HN courses – and the majority of HE students from the most deprived backgrounds start their higher education in college.

The report states that – according to the most recently published data from the SFC Scottish Funding Council – 14 per cent of full-time first-degree university entrants came from the 20 per cent most-deprived areas on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD20) in 2015-16, while in the same year, 23 per cent of higher education entrants to colleges came from SIMD20 areas.

“It is largely because of the colleges’ contribution that Scotland has the highest initial participation rate in the UK,” said Professor Scott. “It is also largely because of the colleges that significant progress has been made to increasing the participation of SIMD20 students in higher education. Although degree entrants and college HE entrants have increased by a similar number over recent years, a recent Sutton Trust commissioned research report calculated that 90 per cent of the improvement in initial participation could be attributed to the colleges and only 10 per cent to the universities.”

Progress too slow

NUS Scotland students' union vice president for education Jodie Waite said while it was right that widening access was a national priority the actual progress towards targets continued to be too slow.

“NUS Scotland welcomes the commissioner putting a spotlight on the lack of consistency in articulation across the university sector. It’s absolutely unacceptable that a student can work hard to achieve an HNC or HND, but universities can pick and choose whether they recognise that achievement in full,” she said.

“NUS Scotland agrees that discussions on widening access must also include a focus on the support available to help students to remain and succeed once they get to university. Our Budget for Better campaign is, therefore, calling on the Scottish government to take the opportunity in this week’s budget to ensure that every student has access to the vital financial support they need.”

And Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said: “Colleges have always supported and facilitated alternative pathways to university, helping individuals overcome disadvantage and ensuring fair and equal access to education.”

Further and higher education minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “As anticipated, the commissioner has produced a report which challenges both policymakers and the sector to do more to improve the accessibility of a university education in Scotland.

“In particular, I welcome the commissioner’s view that free higher education for Scottish students provides the foundations on which fair access can be built. Similarly, we would echo his calls for universities to increase the number of students admitted directly from colleges and free up more college-university pathways.” She added the government would continue to work alongside the school, college and university sector to meet our ambitious targets on widening access – giving all young people an equal chance in life.”

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