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Commission on Widening Access: things to look for

March 14, 2016

The report of the Commission on Widening Access is being launched later today (Monday 14 March).

It’ll be a document covering lots of ground, but it’s likely most of the content will go unreported – only what catches attention in the first few hours will make it  into the broadcast news and the next day’s press.  And what catches immediate attention will depend very much on what the Commission, and the Scottish Government, choose to highlight.

There’s nothing unusual about that – but it makes it worthwhile setting out some advance questions for anyone speed reading the text on the day or looking at it after the dust has settled.

From my perspective – with a particular interest in student funding policy and its relationship with participation  – here are some important questions:

  • will the Commission express any concern about how the student funding system in Scotland relies so heavily on debt to finance living costs – and that this debt is regressively distributed, so that, in effect, the cost of the system is borne disproportionately by the people who are (still) most unrepresented in it?
  •  the interim report (p73 here) appeared to suggest that where low income students don’t use this loan, the main issue is persuading them to borrow more.  Will it repeat this?
  • will it, as trailed,  have more to say about how the student finance system may be limiting the educational choices made by students from poorer backgrounds (p73 again)?
  • will it comment on whether there needs to be further expansion of university (specifically, university) places, given the UCAS data (Fig 11 here) shows demand progressively out-stripping supply over recent years – and if so, will it talk about how much that might cost and how it could be funded?
  • will it have anything to say about the usefulness of the additional places ring-fenced for the most disadvantaged? The interim report appeared to see this making an important contribution to the most recent improvements in numbers: first para, page 46 here, but further planned expansion of this scheme has recently been discontinued.  That was an SFC decision, but made possible by the SG’s decision not to use its guidance letter to the Council to specify the scheme be protected, in the face of a reduction to university funding.
  • how far will it highlight that some of the big-sounding percentage changes in participation by those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds reflect very small changes in absolute numbers?
  • will it be frank about the downsides of the HN-to-degree route, as well as celebrating its strengths: specifically, will it acknowledge that for many this route means one or two further years of study – in effect, a 5 or 6 year path to honours – for which the state offers mainly extra loan?
  • underlying most of these questions  – very importantly –  how far will its recommendations be mainly for schools, colleges, universities and the SFC, rather than the SG as principal funder, decision-maker and policy-setter?
  • generally, what will the ratio be of congratulation to uncomfortable challenge? Are we in the game of business as usual with some cosmetic tweaking – or fundamental reform?

There’ll be much more to look for.  One big theme for digesting slowly will be what the report says about data: it is constantly surprising how many pretty basic questions we can’t answer, despite the sea of numbers, from what’s available.  Plenty to look for too on what happens in schools, including around equal access to the subjects needed for, say, medicine and science degrees more generally. Also, the Commission’s formal brief is to consider the chance of a young person born in 2015 getting into university (again, specifically, university): how far will it concentrate on that group, and how far will today’s 9, 10, 12, 15 etc year olds get a look in?

The contents of the report are unlikely to be a complete surprise to the SG, as the Commission’s secretariat has been based in the government’s  higher education policy team. How long the government will want to consider its response is therefore hard to know.

However, we can predict that after Tuesday the news bandwagon will  have largely rolled on. Yet this is the first commission we have had in Scotland on questions of higher education access and  – by unavoidable extension – funding since Cubie,  in 1999.  It would be good to think its deliberations will have a more durable impact on policy and debate than, say, the ill-fated recent report of the Commission on Local Tax Reform.  Let’s see.




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