The Scottish Government’s Commission for Widening Access, titled ‘Blueprint for Fairness’, has been launched this month. Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University Glasgow Anton Muscatelli is a member of the commission which was launched by Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Angela Constance MSP at the University earlier this month.
The publication sets out the Commission’s commitment to fulfilling First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s vision for a child “born today in one of our most deprived communities” to have “the same chance of entering university as a child born in one of our least deprived communities.”
Among the 34 recommendations the report makes is a call for universities to offer lower admission thresholds for young adults from deprived backgrounds and to offer full bursaries to students with care experience. Blueprint for Fairness also sets out an ambitious target for 20 per cent of entrants to Higher Education to come from Scotland’s most deprived areas. The creation of the post of Commissioner for Fair Access to “drive the agenda across the country” was also recommended. The recommendations are intended to be cohesive and set in place a collaborative approach to widening access involving both secondary and tertiary education providers.
In a speech at the report’s launch, Ms Constance acknowledged her Government’s previous failings in closing the attainment gap and that there “remains much more to do.” The secretary hailed the report’s recommendations as a step towards levelling the attainment playing field and guaranteed that the Scottish Government would “immediately accept the Commission’s recommended targets.”
Commenting on the report, University and College Union Official, Mary Senior said: “Scotland has a demonstrably poor record on widening access and it is important that the issue and these findings get a proper airing during the forthcoming election and that the new Scottish Government looks to make real progress. The Commission’s report and recommendations are an important step in doing so and we warmly welcome today’s publication.”
The report’s has not been universally positive. The Scottish Conservatives have raised issue with a number of the blueprint’s clauses. The party’s young people spokeswoman, Liz Smith MSP, said that the lowered tariffs for students from poorer backgrounds set recommended in the report is “bound to lead to difficulties” for universities. The MSP also raised concerns that the disparity in Higher and Advanced Higher courses across Scotland’s schools would make the challenge of widening access through lower tariffs even greater.
The Conservatives also highlighted that several of the policy recommendations made in the blueprint were harder to implement because of Scottish Government cuts. Smith went on to argue that the SNP’s record on closing the attainment gap did not match up to Sturgeon’s impassioned rhetoric saying: “Of course, the two most important ways to tackle the access issue is to narrow the attainment gap in schools and provide much better bursary support for students from poorer backgrounds – both of which the SNP has failed to do.”
The Conservatives also raised concern about the narrowing of choice for pupils. Smith said: “This problem automatically narrows choice for pupils and it is clear that there are teacher shortages in some specialist subjects which the SNP continues to ignore as a major problem in our schools.”