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Fair access doesn't risk excellence, fair access is excellence

Thursday 17-03-2016 - 11:05

The Commission on Widening Access' report is a bold and progressive challenge to all of us who want to see a fairer Scotland. 

Fair access to education has long been NUS Scotland’s underlying principle in all that we campaign for (and sometimes against!). That’s why, in 2012, we undertook a long term campaign on it, starting with the publication of our landmark report, Unlocking Scotland’s Potential. That report led, amongst many other great achievements, to the First Minister announcing the creation of a commission to examine fair access and how to improve it.

We’ve now seen another significant moment in our campaign, with the publication of the Commission on Widening Access’ final report. We played a big role in shaping the Commission's work, with many of our key asks included in the final recommendations to Scottish Government. It’s a hefty report, but I’d urge you to have a read of it!

Despite many really positive achievements over the years, injustices in access remain. That’s what makes the report so important, and why it doesn’t mark the end of our campaign, but a new beginning. It’s a bold and progressive challenge to all of us who want to see a fairer Scotland, where access to education is never determined by background or circumstance, only by potential.

The report means that Scotland now has a clear set of recommendations to create a fairer education system. Now we need to see those matched by an equally strong response. That must start with politicians, but includes all those who want to realise our ambitions for a truly accessible, fairer education system.  

In all, the Commission made 34 recommendations, each one carefully chosen to ensure the best impact and outcomes, and carefully considered within an evidence base. They recognise the issue often starts at birth that we all have a role to play, identifying the actions that must be taken at every stage, by the appropriate bodies – a ‘through-life’, whole system approach.

Recognising that this begins at birth, however, doesn’t mean we should choose inaction now or pit early years against later years. To do so would be to write off a generation, right here and right now, who are equally deserving of our action. As such, while universities can’t do it all, they can do more, working in partnership with schools and colleges, and even other universities.

That’s why it’s perhaps unsurprising, but disappointing nonetheless, that so much attention has been paid to one particular recommendation – introducing a minimum access threshold, potentially below existing ‘minimum’ entry requirements.

As the Commission’s report raises, in many instances, increasing entry requirements haven’t necessarily been a response to increasing ‘standards’, but simply as a way to manage increasing demand for those places. That fails to take account of the context of a pupils achievements, and context does matter. Not taking account of it harms students who are potentially destined to always miss out.  

Fair access isn’t about charity, it’s core to what universities should be doing - picking the best applicants with the most potential. It’s about ensuring genuine equality of opportunity, rather than background or school dictating your outcomes. Far from lowering standards or dumbing down, widening access can actually increase standards, by getting students with the most potential into our precious university places. It doesn’t risk excellence, widening access is excellence.

Unlocking Scotland’s Potential looked at a range of evidence available to us then, and the Commission saw plenty more now, showing what a pupil from a disadvantaged background achieves at school is far from the best predictor of their future attainment, their potential, at university. But more importantly, the Commission’s recommendations went far beyond simply lowering entry requirements for students who deserve it. It was about ensuring the necessary support was in place before they even set foot on a campus to achieve their full potential to succeed. Even before they set foot in a school.  

It’s evidence that shows how students from more deprived backgrounds or ‘lower performing’ schools, even when offered lower entry requirements, can outperform entrants with higher grades from ‘better’ schools. In this way, improving access can bring the most talented students into our universities and boost the attainment of our graduates.

That should mean, in return for those achievements by students from lower performing schools or communities, ensuring a minimum threshold. It definitely means giving students the opportunity to prove the potential we know they have, not simply that circumstance, luck or background has allowed them to prove already.

We shouldn’t forget, among all the noise and outcries that, while it’s a radical recommendation, innovative ways to get the admissions system to recognise potential have existed for years—across the UK and all our universities—with no drop in quality or standards or outcomes.

So, let’s not pretend it threatens the great education sector we have. Let’s not absolve ourselves, turn a blind eye, or say it’s someone else’s problem. Let’s not give in to elitist judgements that grades are the only or best way to judge a person’s potential. And let’s not cherry-pick recommendations because it’s easier than stepping up to the bold opportunity presented.

Let’s instead use the report and its recommendations to have an honest conversation about how we improve opportunities and outcomes for all, regardless of background or circumstance. Let’s get on with turning this ‘blueprint for fairness’ into actions of fairness.  

I’m so proud of the work the Commission has done. I’m even more proud at the thought of what Scotland could achieve as a result of it.

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