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Access thresholds: a policy that can’t be separated from total places

March 15, 2016

The Commission on Widening Access has reported and the early headlines are all about its proposal for universities to set “access thresholds” for all their courses by 2019.

Recommendation 11: By 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. These access thresholds should be separate to standard entrance requirements and set as ambitiously as possible, at a level which accurately reflects the minimum academic standard and subject knowledge necessary to successfully complete a degree programme.

The Commission also says:

Rather than the market rate, these new access thresholds should be based on the minimum academic standard judged necessary to successfully complete a specific degree programme.

Note “market rate”.  That’s because – despite the rhetoric against “marketisation” – Scotland does have an HE market, in which universities and students compete with one another in the admissions process.  Right now it’s a seller’s market. Again, as the Commission says:

Over the last decade, a gradual improvement in school attainment has led to increased demand for higher education in the context of a system with a fixed number of places. In order to manage this increased competition, universities have, perhaps understandably, responded by raising entry requirements.

Universities have approached our discussions with them on this issue with candour, acknowledging that this trend has led to a position where many institutions now routinely ask for substantially higher grades than the level of attainment that is necessary to successfully complete degree programmes.

The clearest evidence for that comes from UCAS – figure 11 here – which shows how “acceptance rates” have fallen over the past decade and are now substantially lower in Scotland (and NI) than in Wales or England.  That’s happened even though the number of 18 years olds has been falling (Figure 30 here).  The Commission goes on:

Since disadvantaged learners are much less likely than their more affluent peers to achieve the very high grades often now required to enter university, it is they who have been disadvantaged most by this trend.

Don’t overlook that quietly devastating statement.  This is not about some sort of act of nature. The number of funded places has been every bit as much a policy choice of Ministers as free tuition: indeed, the two are related. A more fully subsidised system is always likely to be  a smaller one.

Given that, it’s not hard to see why the Commission has suggested special arrangements for those whose currency in this market –  qualifications  –  is believed not to represent their capacity to benefit from what’s on offer.  This market is failing, the Commission is saying, and intervention is justified (I don’t disagree).  This won’t be comfortable rhetoric for many – but it’s what’s going on and  analysing it this way reveals an essential issue.

Increasing benefits for some people can’t be cost-free for everyone else, when supply is constrained.   The Commission says (emphasis added):

the Commission has discussed how we deliver fair access to university within a system with a fixed number of funded places for undergraduate students. We are mindful that the introduction of access thresholds may raise concerns about the displacement of other applicants. It is our belief, however, that if we are serious about achieving a fairer Scotland, this will require some movement across the system and a breaking down of entrenched patterns of advantage.

So  those displaced are assumed likely to be representatives of entrenched advantage, a point reflected in media coverage. But why should that be? The more places are filled through the access threshold route, the greater the  competition will be for the rest.  That’s likely to push up further the “market rate” in grades for those other places.

The people who will do best in that competition will be those with the strongest exam results.  So it’s unlikely to be young people from private schools or Jordanhill who’ll be at the sharp end of displacement.  It’ll be the applicants with OK but not great results and not strongly disadvantaged  –  “ordinary Scots” is the political term.  Unless this move is accompanied with a quota for private schools, say (good luck with that), or more places, it’s very hard to see how that effect could be avoided.  Further interventions to create an even more stratified approach protecting the next group up, and then the next?  That’s unlikely.

So extra  places are at the heart of this.  The Commission says  (emphasis added):

There are a number of options (which are not mutually exclusive) for increasing the number of higher education students from disadvantaged backgrounds:

• the system could be grown to increase the number of places to support the entry of a greater number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds;

• the current number of places available could be used more equitably, e.g. through use of minimum entry thresholds; or • provision could be restructured to make best use of the places that are available, for example, by removing unnecessary duplication of study years where this is not a requirement for a student to succeed.

The Commission has focused on how we make access fairer within the current system. It is for the Scottish Government to determine the size the higher education sector required to deliver the skills necessary for economic growth. If the Government chooses to make changes to the current system then it should, of course, consider how such changes might be used to best effect to support fair access.

The highlighted sentence is as important as all the paragraphs before. That the Scottish Government needs to look again at the system’s size is an absolutely fundamental point – if that is parked while  access thresholds (or indeed any interventions based on qualification adjustment for the most disadvantaged) proceed, it won’t be entrenched advantage that’s most likely to be broken down, but the sort of advantage that is only relative to those with least.




If the new threshold was going to divert enough current applicants away from the remaining places, this wouldn’t be such a problem.  But applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds remain a disproportionately small group.

How “disadvantage” will be measured will matter – area-based measures, specifically SIMD, won’t work well here – plenty of the most disadvantaged people live in areas outside SIMD20 and some people in SIMD20 areas won’t be personally disadvantaged.  There’ll be room for serious resentment if some of those benefiting from access thresholds are from straight down the line middle class homes.  One to watch.

The admission here that fixing the problem by improving exam grades is unlikely to happen any time soon is depressing –  but realistic.  However, being sure this initiative is not reducing the impetus for better results for these young people will matter.





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