Focus on education in Scotland: It’s a lang road

Recent days have seen more important reports on the state of education in Scotland for the newly elected administration to consider. The old Scottish saying ‘It’s a lang road that’s no goat a turnin’ should apply when planning for a better future. It will take far too long to reach equal access to educational opportunities for all if the road is long and arduous. There is no need to plan for this to be a long road and some turning points could easily be planned. It is not all bad news though.  Some progress is being made and the Scottish government has at least a starting point in place to make change for the better possible soon. But there is a long way to go in fostering equality of opportunity across the educational landscape.

Coming on the back of the long awaited OECD report on education provision in Scotland, ‘Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future’ (21st June 2021), this week saw two further reports on universities for the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). The first, ‘Coherence and Sustainability: A Review of Tertiary Education and Research’ (29th June 2021), is a wide-ranging 81-page summary of an open consultation started in June 2020. Helpfully, all responses have been published online including the response from TEFS.  The second relates to targets set by the Commission on Widening Access, ‘Report on Widening Access 2019-20’ (30th June 2021). The conclusion is that in 2020 Scotland met the somewhat modest target of 16% of students accessing university from the lower advantaged areas by 2021. This is good news but there is still a long way to go for parity that is not expected until 2030.

Widening access is modest and too slow.

The ‘Report on Widening Access 2019-20’ looks closely at students in university coming from different geographic areas by % quintile related to disadvantage in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2020 areas. Focus is on the most deprived (SIMD 0-20%) areas and on care experience (CE) students. An improvement to 16.4% of students from these areas going to university by 2019/20 shows that some slow progress is being made.  This is ahead of the 16% target set for 2021 in the Scottish Government’s ‘A Blueprint for Fairness, The Final report of the Commission on Widening Access (CoWA)’ back in March 2016.  It was a very modest target and, although progress has been made, it is very slow and more must be done to accelerate the target of parity by 2030. 

In contrast, access for CE students is still very poor with only 1.2% entering higher education in 2019/20, a small increase from 1% in 2018/19. The care experienced by those ‘in care’ is clearly not paying off for many.  They seem to be excluded form opportunities more that any other group of people.

Pandemic impact.

The effect of the pandemic from March 2020 is also considered, although it is too early to see the full effects. Not surprisingly, there appears to have been little or no impact on student enrolment figures for 2019/20. However, “it did impact students who were studying at the time and their ability to complete their qualification as planned”. This is very worrying as students with fewer advantages will have met with greater problems. Of particular concern is the observation that “Students who have childcare or caring responsibilities were also impacted by the pandemic, and this may have made it more difficult for these students to complete their course as originally intended”. The only consolation seems to be that “students who may initially have expected to graduate in 2019/20, but were impacted by the pandemic, are instead expected to obtain their awards in future years”. 

Widening access at WARF speed.

One of the central planks in supporting widening access in Scotland in recent years has been in offering to some universities the ‘Widening Access and Retention Fund’ (WARF). This comes to around £15m per year. However, it is only allocated to eight universities.  In relation to the findings on university funding, this appears to be problematical in the ‘Coherence and Sustainability: A Review of Tertiary Education and Research’ findings.

TEFS identified the same issue back in 2019 in ‘Widening access in Scotland at WARF factor three’ (TEFS 30th August 2019). Figure 1 shows the universities in receipt of WARF funding and their success in enrolling students from less advantaged areas. 

Only the post-92 universities are offered the WARF help and it seems odd that disadvantaged students are being steered towards these universities. Is a two tier system being accepted as normal? Indeed, the review concludes first that “There is not a sufficiently strong link between recruitment and successful completion”.  Then, it is noted that pre-92 universities are still able to recruit students from SIMD 0-20% areas with, “The data also shows some institutions are performing well in this area, but they currently do not receive any WARF funding. We intend to use the review findings and policy development in this area to model alternative approaches to this funding”. In its submission, TEFS suggested that more funding is needed and that “widening access to the ‘elite’ universities should be enhanced. More should be done to incentivise them to take many more students form poorer backgrounds. The distribution of access fund WARF subsidy (see Figure 1) should be looked at again in the light of this aim”.

The problem of no fees will not go away so easily.

The thorny issue of fees was avoided completely by the original terms of the review, however TEFS argued that it should still be reconsidered. Most students come from more advantaged backgrounds, and this means they should contribute something towards tuition costs as numbers expand. The idea of a contribution toward university fees across the UK arose from the Dearing report and came into being in 1997 under a UK Labour Government. This was intended to spread out the financial burden and raised funds from the more advantaged families from which most students come. Unfortunately, this has since been extended to full fees and no number cap by successive Conservative governments. Scotland however resisted this in such a manner that its position on no fees became a ‘hostage to fortune’. Scotland must grasp the nettle soon and consider reintroducing a means tested contribution to fees to raise funds for less advantaged students and to increase the cap on numbers. But it must not travel down the route in England and demand full fees through loan repayments only. A compromise is needed for fairness.

It is indeed a ‘lang road that’s no goat a turnin’.

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