Cracking the class ceiling: where next for Scotland?

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From the chair’s foreword

The Commission on Widening Access has just published its final report. You can read a copy here. Chaired by Ruth Silver, a highly respected former college principal who has considerable experience in adult and further education, the Commission listed 34 recommendations, which it describes as adding up to “a system wide plan to achieve equal access within a generation”.

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Dame Ruth Silver

Overall, I’d say that the Commission’s recommendations are as ambitious as this overall aim suggests. It focuses particularly on the massive socio-economic inequalities that characterise higher education participation in Scotland (I’m assuming I don’t need to dwell on the inequalities in other countries). It starts by calling on the Scottish Government to appoint a Commissioner for Fair Access, whose remit will among other things include responsibility for a ‘more substantial evidence base’ than exists at present.

This sounds to me as though the Commission thinks that OFFA (the Office for Fair Access) has on the whole worked well as an advocate for promoting wider access in England, though for tactical reasons this may be something to mutter quietly north of the border. However, the proposed Scottish Commissioner would have greater powers to work with schools and other pre-16 providers than OFFA, allowing a sharper strategic focus and helping avoid suplication.

The Commission also tackles one of the great challenges in ensuring equity in Scottish higher education: the problem of articulation. In its interim report, the Commission praised the expansion of higher education provision in colleges as a sunstantial contribution to wider access. The problem comes when students try to transfer from a college to university: the Commission estimate that 84% of transfers involved only five universities, with the most selective universities admitting few students and recognising less credit.

This is a problem of long standing, and it is a significant block on social mobility. I was delighted to see a strongly-worded recommendation, urging the Scottish Funding Council to “seek more demanding articulation targets from those universities that have not traditionally been significant players”.

It also makes a number of recommendations about admissions criteria and procedures that will be widely welcomed by advocates of wider access, but will be less popular among academics and managers in the more selective universities. In a move that will provoke horror from some senior managers, the Commission proposes that the SFC should make more use of existing regulatory powers to drive wider access, and urges the Scottish Government to publish data on fair access.

The Commission also recognised that the stratified nature of Scottish higher education has consequences for graduate destinations. Essentially, those who enter the most selective forms of higher education are far the most likely to enter elite professions; those who complete short cyle higher education in a non-university context are the least likely. The report also notes that the least advantaged students are also less likely, on average, to complete their qualification.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Commission was unable to consider inequalities in outcomes for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds in any depth. Its final recommendation invites the new Commissioner to “consider what futher work is required to support equal outcomes after study for those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with a care experience”.

My initial reaction, then, is that the Commission has done a pretty decent job. I have some reservations about key gaps – for example, the lack of explicit attention to ethnicity and gender. The remit – as you can see above – was narrowly focussed on children’s life chances, with no acknowledgement of second chance learners. But on the whole, I think Ruth Silver and her colleagues have delivered an important and challenging agenda for equity and mobility in Scotland, in a report that should be of interest way beyond our borders.

What will happen next is, of course, a matter for the Scottish Government. Angela Constance, the minister responsible for education and lifelong learning, has broadly welcomed the report (while patting herself and her Government on the back, both for their past achievments, and for appointing the Commission in the first place). Her official statement concluded with the following sentence:

I am very grateful to Dame Ruth Silver and the Commissioners for the considerable time, effort and engagement they have put into producing this ’Blueprint for Fairness’. Their recommendations are bold and thoughtful and fit well with ongoing work around closing the attainment gap and developing the young workforce.

This reads to me as though adult learning still has no part to play in the Scottish Government’s strategy for wider access, which is disappointing, if not very surprising. But the Scottish Government has already faced down the more conservative-minded leaders in the higher education sector in demanding reforms to governance, so I am hopeful that they will go at least some way to tackling the social class inequalities and injustice that this report has highlighted. And if you want to monitor developments, you could do much worse than follow the well-informed and analytical blog of Lucy Hunter Blackburn, here.

 

 

The curious absence of older workers from the equity and skills agenda

One of the things I find admirable in current Scottish policy thinking is that skills policies are broadly aligned with policies for equalities and poverty reduction. Quite how this works out in practice is of course another – very difficult – matteer. But at least the general intention of marrying skills development with equity is clear and unambiguous.

There is, though, a lingering gap in the thinking when it comes to age and ageism. I took a quick look at the 2010 ‘refresh’ of Skills for Scotland, the Scottish Government’s main policy document for the area. This key text barely mentions skills and adult workers, and presents no strategic thinking on the older workforce.

In 63 pages, the word adult is used eleven times; seven of those refer to adult literacy and numeracy, and ESOL, unemployed career guidance, offenders and local council services get one mention each. There is one reference to older workers, in the appendix.

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Age distribution of Scotland’s population in the 2011 census

Scotland’s population profile is an aging one. As in so many European countries but in contrast to England, Scottish society is characterised by low birth rates and relatively low rates of immigration.This has obvious implications for the size and shape of Scotland’s working age population, so the absence of any serious thinking about the upskilling and reskilling of older workers is striking.

The collapse of adult learning in Scotland – a government response 

I wrote last week about Scottish Funding Council data showing further decline in part-time student numbers in colleges. The learners whose courses have been cut are overwhelmingly adults, and a majority are female. Now the Scottish Government, in the form of the Minister for Skills and Training, has explained that this is part of a strategy to remove courses of low quality or of no particular benefit.

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Scotsman, 16 January 2016

You will, unfortunately, search in vain on the Scottish Government website for evidence to support this statement. I am not aware of any serious evidence that the lost part-time adult courses were of low quality, or that they had no real long term benefits. On the other hand there are quite a few inpection reports praising the quality of part-time college courses, and there is plenty of research showing that these courses have tangible benefits for learners.

Still, I am pleased that the Minister at least saw fit to justify her government’s decisions, even if the justification is utterly unconvincing. I welcome it as a sign that at long last we might have at least the semblance of a debate on the future of adult learning in Scotland.

 

 

The Scottish Government takes a narrow view of adult learning, but at least it takes a view

In May 2014, the Scottish Government launched its Statement of Ambition on Adult Learning. Given its title, it isn’t surprising that the paper was long on generalities and short on specifics; its role was to set out a broad direction of travel, which would be followed by consultation over how best to get there.

The job of handling the next stages was passed over to Education Scotland (ES), a state agency which undertakes teaching inspections and supports quality improvement across the education system (excluding only higher education). ES has convened a strategic forum, and earlier this year it published a set of strategic objectives that were informed by the forum’s discussions.

In practice, the strategic objectives didn’t much move things on from the Statement of Ambition. Since then, the Scottish Government has issued its work programme for 2015-2016, an 88-page document that includes the following commitment:

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Some – and I’m one of them – will think this a rather narrow and unambitious set of goals; while all are necessary and even praiseworthy, they are a long way from the aim of being ‘recognised globally as the most creative and engaged learning society’. But at a time when publicly funded adult learning in Scotland is in freefall, we can take a small crumb of reassurance from this commitment to a basic platform of public provision.

 

Funding adult learning in Scotland: the non-formal sector

Neil Findlay, Member of the Scottish Parliament

Neil Findlay, Member of the Scottish Parliament

Neil Findlay, Member of the Scottish Parliament for Lothian, is an inveterate poser of written parliamentary questions. In contrast to the debating chamber, where ministers typically score smarty-pants points off any MSP who challenges them, written questions must be answered. And fortunately, Neil Findlay – a member of the Cross-Parliamentary Group on Adult Learning, is interested in adult learning – presumably because he thinks it an area where the Government is vulnerable.

So far this year he has posed four questions about adult learning, four of them concerning funding. They include this one on Government funding for ‘non-formal adult learning’. Overall, it looks at first sight as though Government has been relatively gentle on this part of the sector. Looking more closely, though, this budget has not changed in cash terms since 2005, and a ten-year standstill in cash terms represents a significant cut in real terms.

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Incidentally, I ought to make it clear that I have not written this post as a supporter of Mr Findlay’s party, which is Labour. Those who have read earlier posts on the blog know that already, but I don’t think party allegiance counts in this context – adult learning should matter to MSPs from all parties.

Social inequality and modern languages

What are the chances of working in Paris?

What are the chances of working in Paris?

During the last few weeks, the Scottish Government has faced growing criticism for its perceived neglect of modern languages. Business leaders and European government representatives have lined up to lament the decline of foreign language teaching in Scotland’s schools.

One newspaper estimated that the number of pupils taking a foreign language Higher had fallen by a quarter over 20 years, with particularly acute falls in French and German.

In turn, this has inevitably affected demand for University courses. Several institutions have shut down language degrees, or even whole departments. And one knock-on effect is that fewer language graduates are available to become language teachers, with obvious results for the schools and colleges.

Nor are there opportunities for people to catch up later on. On the contrary: part-time courses in colleges have been derided as ‘leisure courses’ (as though it were somehow improper to enjoy learning something as useless as Spanish or Mandarin), with massive reductions in the number of part-time and evening courses available.

As a result, increasingly the provision of foreign language teaching has become privatised. Despite the fact that only 5 or 6 per cent of Scots children are in private schools, the Scotsman estimated that the private sector accounted for 10 per cent of all Scotland’s French Higher students, 16 per cent of Spanish, 17 per cent of German and 18 per cent of Italian.

Meanwhile second chance adult learners are increasingly faced with a choice between private providers (including online providers like Busuu) and voluntary providers like the U3A.

Scotland is hardly alone: the number of first year undergraduates in foreign languages in the UK fell by 6% over the seven years up to 2013/14. Nor is it new: the Royal Society of Edinburgh was warning of the problem a decade ago.

But what is striking is that Scotland’s Government – always fond of parading its progressive credentials – seems oblivious to the long term implications of its policies for modern languages. Stated simply, those who master a foreign language are more likely to feel confident and communicate clearly in multi-cultural settings; they are empowered. Those who are monolingual are more likely to feel uncertain and anxious in multi-cultural settings, and to seek out the company of their monolingual peers; they are disempowered.

Ask yourself this question: Which of these two groups will thrive in our increasingly cosmpolitan and globalised world, and which will find its options narrowed? And why on earth have successive governments, across the UK, done so little to tackle this obvious source of long term inequality and inefficiency.

The crisis in part-time higher education: its impact in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

Part-time undergraduate study in England is collapsing. Most people shrug, and put this down to the impact of fees. I’m convinced that England’s sudden shift to a high fee system has had some impact on part-time study, in spite of some fairly generous bursaries and fee waiver policies. But is this the only factor at work?

A quick look at the other UK nations suggests that this is far too simple a view. Much of the recent debate about part-time higher education was based on newly-published HESA data. These figures might suggest that part-time study is thriving elsewhere in the UK – but we need to bear in mind that for the first time, HESA now attributes Open University students to the nation in which they study; previously, HESA attributed all OU students to England, which is where the OU has its campus.

For this one year only, HESA has also made its figures available on the old basis – ie, allocating all OU students to England. The new system gives us a better picture of part-time study as a whole, but the old basis allows us to look more closely at part-time study in face-to-face universities. As the table shows, the pattern is very clear indeed.

First, it shows that part-time higher education is in decline in all four UK nations. But it also shows a particularly steep decline in Scotland. In the years 2009-10 to 2011-12, the number of part-time higher education in Scottish universities fell by a quarter, and albeit at a slower pace, the collapse has continued since then.

Why should this be so? Well, we don’t really know, as the only part of the UK to commission serious research into the issue has been in England, though how much notice the Government took of Claire Callender’s findings is debateable. Elsewhere in the UK, the funding bodies and national governments have preferred not to be troubled by inconvenient evidence in the first place.

So I am speculating – though I am speculating on the basis of experience as well as research into related issues. Fees may well be part of the equation. Initially, the Scottish Government abolished fees for full-time home undergraduates only. When it introduced waivers for part-timers, they were complicated, poorly understood and means-tested, so I would expect them to have deterred some part-timers.

And maybe demand for part-time higher education is falling generally. We might expect this to be the case, given that the massive expansion of full-time study since the 1990s means that most school-leavers with suitable qualifications now find it easy to enter higher education, though perhaps not at the university of their first choice.

But institutions also carry part of the responsibility. Some have never allowed part-time undergraduate study; but others have reduced the number of part-time opportunities because they are attracting more full-time candidates than in the past, and only have a fixed number of funded places. Put simply, part-time students fail the ‘convenience’ test, and institutions have therefore replaced them with full-timers.

So thank goodness, you might say, for the OU. Sadly, although the OU continues to make a massive contribution to part-time higher education across the UK, the OU’s undergraduate numbers are falling in all four nations.

In short, our governments have made a right old mess of part-time higher education, and this in turn is further eroding our already battered lifelong learning system across the UK. This will have far-reaching consequences in terms of equality, with opportunities denied to those who were failed by the system first time around, and in terms of long term and sustainable economic recoveryt.