Colleges have the principles of widening access to higher education “in their DNA”, the chair of a government commission tasked with tackling the issue has said.
Dame Ruth Silver said that colleges are “a credit to Scotland” when it comes to broadening educational opportunities for those from the poorest backgrounds.
Speaking to TESS as the Commission on Widening Access published its final report, Dame Ruth said that colleges were ahead of other parts of the education sector – especially universities – on extending participation.
Colleges already offer a significant proportion of the HE courses available in Scotland, and 22 per cent of students already come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
But she added that there needed to be “a more conscious effort” to develop a national, coordinated approach to widening access between schools, colleges and universities.
“Colleges have a revolving door on widening participation. It is in their DNA. They are a credit to Scotland in many ways, but the difficulty has been the university side of things,” Dame Ruth said. “Colleges are not the problem – but that does not mean there are no difficulties in them.”
The commission’s final report, A Blueprint for Fairness, includes 34 recommendations and sets out specific targets on widening access for the first time. The targets include ensuring that at least one in five full-time first-degree students comes from the most deprived fifth of all Scottish communities by 2030.
The report also calls on the government to appoint a commissioner for fair access to lead efforts to tackle the issue.
Student living-cost loans should be replaced with a non-repayable bursary and there needs to be a more flexible package of support for learners who have been in care, it says.
The report also stresses that a whole-system approach is required to address the barriers to fair access. Dame Ruth has spent 30 years working in the further education sector north and south of the border. She was a principal of Lewisham College in London for 17 years, and became chair of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service in 2014.
She was named chair of the Commission on Widening Access in March last year, as part of first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge to increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
‘We need to pull together’
Angela Constance, cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, said that the government would accept the commission’s recommended targets (see box, above).
“Achieving these will not be the sole responsibility of universities nor indeed just the education system – we will all have to work collectively to this end,” she said.
Ms Constance said that the commission’s other recommendations would be closely considered. She said taking the target forward left no-one “in any doubt” about the government’s determination to make “urgent progress” on achieving equal access.
The commission also highlights the importance of articulation – a route that allows successful college students to move into the second or even third year of a university degree programme. The report says: “We see no good reason why Scotland should persist with an essentially stratified higher education system where learners who take longer to realise their potential have access only to a restricted number of institutions and courses.
“We believe that all universities should be required to engage meaningfully with articulation, building on the numerous examples of best practice already in place across the sector.”
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said that colleges had made considerable progress in securing and developing articulation arrangements. She said that she believed that the development of a standardised system of articulation would “contribute to a more seamless landscape”, which would help young people progress in education.
Professor Sir Pete Downes, convener of Universities Scotland, welcomed the commission’s recognition of good work going on to widen access in universities.
“Some recommendations, including those that focus on minimum entry requirements and guaranteed places, are going to be challenging for universities and for the Scottish government but we will not shy away from that as we take the time to consider the recommendations in depth,” he said.
Barriers to higher education
The proportion of higher education college students from the 20 per cent most deprived communities in Scotland: 22 per cent
The proportion of total articulation delivered by five of Scotland’s universities: 84 per cent
The proportion of the poorest learners progressing from college to university with no credit for prior learning: 43 per cent
The proportion of the least advantaged learners who progressed from college with full credit for prior learning to one of Scotland’s four ancient universities: 1 per cent
Figures from 2013-14