The education sector in Scotland must harness the current "moment in time" to widen access to university, the chair of the government's new commission on the issue has said.
Dame Ruth Silver told TESS that the political climate in Scotland and a number of education policies were combining to create a climate of opportunity that would allow new routes into higher education to be opened up for students from the most deprived backgrounds.
The Scottish context around widening access was very different to the situation in England, she stressed. "In the 15 months I have been here, from a Glasgow perspective, I have seen the [Commonwealth] Games, the vote on independence, the general election - it is very clear this is now a different place." Dame Ruth said this was "a moment in time" that should be seized to ensure the commission's success.
The political context was important, she added, with the challenge of closing the attainment gap and the Developing the Young Workforce strategy also high on the agenda. "This access strategy is joining a suite of policies. If they behave well, they can become well aligned."
Initial reactions to the commission had been positive, she said. "I must say, people seem very glad to see us and it feels like a ripe moment."
However, the timing has brought challenges. "We are also facing a time when the cap on student numbers is coming off HE places, which means we will start to see increasing pressure on places." This could prove damaging to the aim of widening access, Dame Ruth warned.
`Experience and insight'
The Widening Access Commission was announced by first minister Nicola Sturgeon in November as she pledged to meet a target of 20 per cent of university entrants coming from the most disadvantaged 20 per cent of society. Dame Ruth was appointed as chair in March, and a month later the other members were revealed, including representatives of universities and colleges but also student groups and employers.
On announcing the commission's members, education secretary Angela Constance said: "I'm confident that we have the right mix of experience, knowledge and insight from across the education system, business and other interested parties to drive this work alongside Dame Ruth."
Born in Lanarkshire, Dame Ruth spent 30 years working in the further education sector in England. She was principal of Lewisham College in London for 17 years until 2009. In 2010, she became chair of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, and she has also been an adviser to the House of Commons Education Select Committee and a member of the Skills Commission.
Dame Ruth said her first impression of the Scottish education system's record on widening access was that a number of successful but contrasting programmes had been set up across the country.
"My sense now is there has been a lot of ways of doing different kinds of access," she added. "We need to find a way of looking at what is on offer and what needs are being met. We know these students need more support."
Scottish colleges were at the heart of the widening access process, Dame Ruth stressed. "I have found colleges reach into everywhere. They work with community groups, employers, schools. And they are really good at it. Colleges are fundamental in this."
However, she warned that they should not be seen as the only option for a particular group of young people. "I would hate to make that the only route in."
The commission held its first meeting five weeks ago, and Dame Ruth told TESS that although specific targets would not be set until later, she would be keen to determine "component parts for access", rather than a prescriptive scheme.
"I hope we can say, `This is what we know works. This is the spine of good access'," she added.