David Wann, deputy chief executive of the Scottish Funding Councils for Further and Higher Education, told delegates at a two-day conference on access last week, that Government policy made participation from under-represented groups "a core responsibility for every institution - not a bolt-on issue".
Mr Wann said: "The principles of social inclusion should be pervasive throughout each institution. It's not enough that it's something your widening access co-ordinator will address. Senior managers, heads of department, admissions officers, guidance staff, lecturers and tutors all have their part to play."
Mr Wann revealed that the HE funding council was planning a "significant change" from next year in making its core grant to institutions conditional on progress in key areas such as widening participation.
He acknowledged, however, that there would have to be improved collaboration between FE and higher education institutions, easier transition between sectors and more effort behind retention and achievement not just recruitment.
Resources of pound;4.5 million over three years are being made available to the FE funding council to develop a national access centre and to promote inclusiveness policies. There is also a "widening participation premium" of pound;4 million in college funding to ensure more students stay on and progress in FE, backed by a 14 per cent increase in bursary funds partly intended for increased awards to students in need.
Joyce Johnston, chair of the funding councils' joint task group on widening participation, suggested to the conferene that there should be a target of a 10 per cent increase in the number of students from socio-economically deprived areas by 2003 in both FE and HE.
There must be a "seamless" system to allow students to move between college, university and employment. There also had to be simpler financial arrangements for those in work who want to take time out to study.
Ms Johnston, principal of Fife College, stressed that regional collaboration was the way forward. She was backed by Tony Jakimciw, principal of Dumfries and Galloway College, who cited the Crichton Campus as an example of two colleges and two universities coming together to serve an area in south-west Scotland where only 12 per cent of the population have a degree or diploma.
Its target is at least 1,500 students by 2005 against 756 now. But Mr Jakimciw warned: "Seamlessness is yet to be achieved." There are four separate organisations on campus each with different start dates, holidays, term lengths, entry criteria, credit and articulation arrangements, and prospectuses.
Other steps that had to be taken included changes in higher national diplomas and certificates to make them a more flexible route into HE and an end to funding inequalities between FE and HE.
Mr Jakimciw said: "We need more collaboration between staffs and we need to overcome the competitive urge and strengthen agreed management and joint academic planning. There is a potential conflict between autonomy and collaboration and there has to be more give and take in order to establish learning pathways."
The conference, at Heriot-Watt University, was the second national one organised by the Scottish Network on Access and Participation.