Opinion: Assessing progress on widening access to universities

Thursday 28 July 2022

Steve Olivier
Writing for the Scotsman, Professor Steve Olivier, Principal of RGU, talks about the progress being made by Scotland’s universities to increase access to higher education.

In May, Professor Sir Peter Scott, the outgoing Commissioner for Fair Access, published his final progress report, Maintaining the Momentum Towards Fair Access. This considers the progress being made by Scotland’s universities to increase access to higher education for those from deprived backgrounds. It is pleasing to note that Robert Gordon University (RGU) has been able to influence the Commissioner’s findings. 

RGU has a mission to transform people and communities. Raising aspirations continues to be a key aim of the University, which is reflected in our new strategy. We have an unflinching commitment to widening and extending access to higher education, regardless of an individual’s background.

The University undertakes a wide range of activity throughout Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire and beyond to make higher education accessible to a broad range of learners. This includes our close partnerships with nine regional schools where University staff are embedded within the schools and work directly with teachers and pupils on a sustained basis to support learners’ entry to university. As a result of this enhanced engagement, we have seen significant growth in our widening participation programmes, which are tailored for each school and run for the entirety of the learner journey, supporting pupils from S1 through to S6. Notably, our Northern Lights programme now has 700 S1 and S2 pupils registered to start in January, and we have seen a 211% increase in participation in our Access To programme for S5 and S6 pupils, with over 470 joining next month. Building on this success, we are looking to expand our hub school model beyond the region.

The University also has excellent articulation arrangements with colleges to improve access to degree-level education, notably with North East Scotland College, where our sector-leading partnership enables one of Scotland’s largest cohorts of articulating students to enrol with advanced standing each year in the University. 

Despite our considerable efforts, the University has been unable to meet the narrowly-defined target set by the Commission on Widening Access that students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds (SIMD20) should represent at least 10% of full-time first-degree entrants to every individual Scottish university. This is in spite of the fact that the University enrols more widening access students than some other institutions who have met the target.

This position is explained by there being a smaller number of SIMD20 postcodes in the North of Scotland compared with other regions. The majority of SIMD20 school leavers are located across the central belt, notably within the Greater Glasgow area. RGU is therefore reliant on recruiting SIMD20 students from outwith the local area.

This is a significant challenge for the University given the competitive recruitment environment for such students, particularly as other institutions are located much closer to those areas containing the majority of SIMD20 students. 

On its own, SIMD is a blunt tool for identifying disadvantaged learners. As an area-based measure, it cannot distinguish between deprived and non-deprived individuals living in areas classified as low/high deprivation. Crucially, the current approach to defining widening access does not take account of regional differences. 

The University’s voice has been significant in influencing change. In his final report, the Commissioner has taken account of the University’s evidence-based advice by stating that institutional targets based on SIMD are no longer fit-for-purpose. He recommends that there should be greater flexibility, where institutions should be able to use a basket of measures to assess progress on widening access, with oversight from the Scottish Funding Council. This would provide a more accurate, comprehensive, relevant, agile and fairer approach to assessing and recognising institutions’ progress towards fair access, including taking into account distinct regional contexts. The University looks forward to working with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council in actioning the Commissioner’s recommendations.

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