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Widening Access Commission membership announced: timetable and remit still tbc

April 29, 2015

The Scottish Government has announced who will join Dame Ruth Silver, already announced as chair, on its widening access commission.  Press release here and full membership in footnote. This is the first independent review in Scotland with (perhaps) a remit to touch on student funding in over 15 years.

Membership of the commission was  announced on the day of its first meeting.  Its  timetable is still  to be announced: whether  it has been given any formal remit remains unclear, but presumably some terms of reference will be made public at some point.

It will have twelve members. As well as Dame Ruth, the commission will comprise two university vice-chancellors, an FE college principal, the president-elect of NUS Scotland and a senior NUS Scotland official, a representative of the SFC who is now a freelance consultant but has in the past had senior roles in race and LGBT equality bodies,  a local authority director of education, a secondary head teacher,  a pre-school body representative, an STUC representative, and a senior business representative (who also sits on a number of public boards and committees, including Skills Development Scotland).

The commission’s membership is  (chair aside) wholly  Scotland-based, and its members are predominantly there because of a current institutional  leadership role in Scotland.

It’s an interesting contrast to the Diamond Committee in Wales, to which the Welsh Government not only appointed a Scottish chair, but one further Scottish member plus 3 further members from other parts of the UK.   On the Diamond Committee, current institutional affiliations are looser:  of the 12 government-appointed members  2 were engaged for their research background and a third is retired from the relevant higher education body.  The Scottish Government has not followed the Welsh  Government’s relatively unusual model of inviting the opposition parties to nominate a member each.   This  is a straight down the line government-appointed body.

It’s a shame perhaps that the chance has been not been taken to build in more practical and research expertise from beyond Scotland, but that’s something the Commission will no doubt consider how to tap as it takes its work forward.  With both the school-level representatives from Glasgow, the Principal of Borders College will have an important role as a voice with experience of rural Scotland: participation rates in HE are generally lower from rural areas.  The choice of two representatives from Glasgow, rather than one from another urban area of Scotland,  is interesting: ensuring that any specific characteristics of non-Glasgow urban Scotland are captured in the commission’s work will be important.  Ali Jarvis’ background in broader equality issues is welcome: broader equality issues, such as race, have not has not to date been such a high-profile issue in the debate in Scotland about access.

There are dedicated voices from pre-school (interestingly) and secondary education, but primary education will need to be given a voice in the process somehow, too – research seems to be finding that  life-defining attitudes towards HE form earlier in school than many have often assumed.  It’s worth being aware that the focus of the work is on young people –  how far the commission has a remit to ask how make or break it should be to get into higher education straight from school and what opportunities there are for those who don’t isn’t yet clear.

The  Commission’s operating model, including whether it will follow Cubie in issuing open calls for evidence or holding open meetings, and whether it will hold evidence sessions in public, will doubtless become clearer after this first meeting.  As with all bodies charged with fixing a long-term “wicked issue”, openness in process, open-mindedness to evidence and willingness to challenge received wisdom and vested interests are all  likely to be critical to the commission making the sort of impact many will be keen to see it have.

It faces a formidable task – but it’s to be welcomed as an important new arrival on the Scottish higher education scene.

Commission membership

Links added in  couple of places, where the description does not make the individual’s general  background clear.

  • Dame Ruth Silver (chair)
  • Professor Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Glasgow
  • Liz McIntyre, Principal, Borders College
  • Ali Jarvis, Chair of SFC’s Access & Inclusion Committee
  • Maureen McKenna, Executive Director of Education, Glasgow City Council
  • Gerry Lyons, Headteacher, St Andrew’s Secondary School, Glasgow
  • Jean Carwood-Edwards, Chief Executive, Scottish Pre-School Play Association
  • Helen Martin, Assistant Secretary, Scottish Trades Union Congress
  • Russell Gunson, Director, NUS Scotland
  • Vonnie Sandlan, Women’s Officer & President elect, NUS Scotland
  • Professor Petra Wend, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
  • Caroline Stuart, Oracle Ltd.
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