There are many ways to take forward the agenda to widen access in Scotland but, before we do that, we should re-assess and re-assert what this agenda is about. In doing so, it might be beneficial if we dropped the phrase "widening access" and replaced it with "equal access". Our sector should not work to a charity model, where we offer to do our bit to help those in difficulties, but should champion fairness, equality and opportunity. It should not just be about equal access to freshers' week but to graduation as well.
More research is needed into the barriers and factors which prevent people realising their dreams. Indeed, more work is needed to raise the aspirations of large communities within Scotland, and inspire the confidence in them to learn.
In our ambition for equal access, we should be mindful that the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework is a fundamental tool - where institution attended is not the focus, but learning outcomes are key. The SCQF opens doors to those without formal qualifications but with a wealth of experience.
We should consider how we can further embed the SCQF into Scottish education. This could be achieved by lending our support to the creation of a centre for recognising prior learning, or by encouraging the meaningful participation of professional, statutory and regulatory bodies in the framework.
The sector needs to consider the impact of growing credentialism. Jobs previously available following an apprenticeship now need a degree and, in many professions, an MBA appears to have become a rite of passage. If post-graduate degrees become the standard for those jobs which are currently at graduate level, we will go back to an era where finances directly dictate future careers.
We need to encourage dialogue between academics, students, graduates and employers to ensure the undergraduate degree continues to be a standard entry level into the employment market.
There are numerous definitions of student engagement. To some, a simple survey of students is an acceptable method of engagement; to others, students should sit on a "customer services committee". What is true is many institutions struggle to engage students effectively, and many students have difficulty finding an appropriate opportunity to engage.
Enabling student engagement is a responsibility of every institution. But the Scottish Funding Council also has a responsibility to make it possible, and should consider the creation of a learner engagement officer, or even a unit, to ensure students can be engaged across the levels of decision-making in colleges and universities.
A strong student voice is also vital. Rifts stifle engagement and force policies to be made without consultation. This must be avoided.
Education should be an immersive experience, where teachers enthuse students on the value of their learning and excitement of applying their knowledge (whether blue skies research or vocational experience), and where students are given the opportunity to learn as much from their interactions with one another outside, as in the classroom.
This is based on the understanding that, through such immersion, students leave education as transformed individuals. We might wish to consider whether these laudable ambitions sit easily within a sector where promotions are still offered largely on the basis of research, not the value of teaching, and where institutions could be viewed as more concerned about their league-table position than their students' experiences. Nor should we forget that students' study time is increasingly becoming students' earning time.
There is much the Scottish Funding Council can do to address these issues. Teaching qualifications for university lecturers would be a positive development. So, too, would encouraging institutions to take their students out of their comfort zones and engage with other students they don't know, breaking up the ghettoisation of foreign students.
It is also important for the SFC to respond to changes in the sector. Developments within the University of the Highlands and Islands network, between The Robert Gordon University and Aberdeen College, between Borders College and Heriot-Watt University and at the Crichton Campus are examples of the college and university sectors working together to provide a seamless educational experience.
This could imply a merger between the college and university sectors, demonstrating it is viable. We should consider whether, in addition to being viable, it is desirable. I am a passionate advocate of that desirability because of the good impact it would have on students and learning. Nevertheless, where a merged sector may create many opportunities, it will also cause problems.
This paper was written for and presented to the Scottish Funding Council.