Should the Scottish Government legislate on university access?

In leap years, the last day of February has always attracted superstitions. Traditionally, in Scotland it was believed a day of bad luck. Some people in Scotland’s universities clearly felt particularly hard done by when Mike Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, announced that his plans for post-16 reform included a stronger legislative base for promoting wider access. He also made a number of other proposals, all of them worth discussing, and some far-reaching. But the idea of legislating for wider access is a new one in these islands, and that is my focus here. 

Universities Scotland replied that it saw no ‘pressing need for new legislation on widening access’, and suggested that any new law might lead to young people entering university courses for which they were poorly prepared. The University of St Andrew’s was, predictably, more assertive, describing access as ‘not an area for legislation, but for specific projects and partnerships’, adding for good measure that ‘statutory force may lead to bad practice’. This is classic avoidance-speak, as familiar to us as the clouds in the sky, and about as fluffy. Anyone who has watched university administrators collating data to demonstrate compliance with targets will understand why any new law needs to be drafted with a beady eye on possible unintended consequences. If we want to avoid state regulation of the sector, we need to engage with Scotland’s serious problem of social inequality as it affects our institutions.

First, let’s look quickly at some of the data. We can start with the proportion of young entrants from Scotland who come from families with managerial and professional backgrounds. The figures will surprise anyone who has bought into the myths: 73% of new Scottish undergraduates came from socio-economic classes 1, 2 and 3, compared with 68% from Wales and London, 67% from Yorkshire, and 64% from Northern Ireland; the South-east of England was ahead of Scotland, at 76%. In other words, the affluent middle class account for a larger share of university entrants in Scotland than any other UK nation, making us closer to the South-east of England than to Yorkshire, the Midlands or northern England.

Next up is the proportion of young people entering undergraduate degrees who do not come from state schools or colleges. Over 12% of new entrants from Scotland are privately indicated, compared with 8% from Yorkshire, 5% from Wales and 1% from Northern Ireland. This indicator suggests that Scotland’s university entrants are more likely to be privately educated school-leavers than in the other UK nations; of the English regions, only the South-west, London (with its many minority faith schools) and the South-east come ahead of Scotland.

These data, published annually by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, are significant. Universities Scotland challenges the use of the multiple deprivation index to measure inequality, and HESA publishes data on neighbourhood disadvantage for Northern Ireland, England and Wales only. But both charts, showing university degree entrants by socio-economic classification, and by type of school, suggest a sector that might be seen by UK standards as relatively closed and elitist.

Of course, this is not the full picture. Many school-leavers in Scotland (and a fair few adults) enter full-time higher education in a college, taking one- and two-year Higher National Certificates and Diplomas. So the system as a whole is more open and inclusive than appears when looking solely at the university sector. And then there are all those adult returners and part-time students.

But here’s the rub: this is precisely what Mike Russell and the Scottish Government are trying to get at. If you take an HND, after two years of full-time study, then a lot of people – Mike Russell included – think you should be able to go on to a university and complete an undergraduate degree without having to go back to the first year. After all, every single HEI in Scotland has fully signed up to the national credit and qualifications framework. But in practice, students who ‘articulate’ from an HNC or HND into the second or third year of a degree tend to find themselves almost entirely in the so-called ‘new universities’ or ‘post-92’ institutions. In this, the university sector is at least consistent, as most students from disadvantaged backgrounds and state schools are similarly found in the post-92s.

And what about adult returners? Within the UK, Scotland’s universities are marked by their low proportion of part-time students (only Wales has a lower proportion of part-time students). Again, part-time HE students tend to gather in the colleges, as do other students from non-traditional backgrounds. The cruel fact is that under the Government’s policy of consolidation, overall funded student numbers are restricted; if a university can fill its places with full-time students, there is no incentive to take part-time ones. So although some institutions, mostly post-92, do attract part-time adult students, the university sector as a whole does not seem well-placed to support lifelong learning alongside working life.

Faced with such stark inequalities, the Government’s position looks quite cautious. The possibility of legislation was floated in the Government’s green paper on post-16 education, and the Minister’s proposals are quite modest. What he said was that the consultation seemed to show ‘clear support for legislation to support the current activity on access agreements that is being led by the Scottish funding council, and that is the route that I will pursue’. In other words, he is proposing to strengthen the current direction of travel, and give it some sort of legal basis, which is yet to be determined – after, no doubt, the usual heavy lobbying. Hardly the stuff to give even the most nervous registrar nightmares.

Instinctively, I am not an automatic supporter of state regulation of universities. But it seems to me that in many ways, our universities are slithering away from their social contract with the wider community. In Scotland, the Government has chosen to protect university budgets, at least for the time being, but other sectors have been raided in order to fund this protection; young people at risk of unemployment face uncertainty over the availability of skills training in colleges, and pre-school education has fallen well behind standards elsewhere in the UK. And there are anxieties and shortages aplenty in the schools sector.

Which brings us to the wider problem of educational inequality across Scotland’s education system. In its response to the consultation on post-16 education and training, Universities Scotland made a very good point about the roots of inequality in higher education. Put simply, universities are simply dealing with what the schools send; while over one in every two pupils from the most advantaged ten per cent of neighbourhoods in Scotland leaves with five Higher Grades or equivalent, only one in fourteen from the most deprived ten per cent crosses this hurdle. Undergraduate participation rates are higher among qualified entrants from the more deprived neighbourhoods than in more affluent areas. This is a very important finding, and Universities Scotland tactfully suggests that this should give the Minister something more pressing to worry about than the universities.

Yet even if Mike Russell dealt with inequality in schools tomorrow, the universities would still be hanging from a hook, in spite of all Universities Scotland’s wriggling. Put simply, a weak schools system requires a strong lifelong learning system, with abundant opportunities for people to return later in life, ideally without leaving their jobs. In so far as we have such a system, it is based in the college sector, and movement from college into university is highly problematic. Bluntly, it is confined to those universities that are keenest to recruit, and even there it is contingent on the number of places left over once conventionally-qualified first year entrants have been placed.

Finally, could legislation work? In fact, there is some relevant experience elsewhere, in one of the small open Nordic nations. Sweden has legislated on university access, with particular respect to mature students: all over-25s meet the eligibility requirement provided they have basic Swedish and English, plus at least four years’ work experience, and are only rejected where they do not meet the specific demands of specialist courses such as chemistry or maths. Studies by Agnieszka Bron, Martin Hällsten and the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education suggest that Swedish universities contribute significantly to lifelong learning and equity. I have yet to see convincing, or even unconvincing evidence that the quality of teaching or research has suffered as a result. So the Government does not have to look far to find signs that legislation might work; if Scotland’s universities have their wits about them, they will make sure that it is not needed.

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