Universities are facing a squeeze on places that could see wealthier applicants miss out, the Commissioner for Fair Access has warned.
Professor Sir Peter Scott said the Scottish Government should make permanent the additional funded places provided in 2020-21 and continued for 2021-22. The measure was rolled out as universities grappled with the effects of the Covid pandemic.
Prof Scott’s annual report, published on Wednesday, states that institutions are already under pressure, with strong demand from prospective students likely to continue rising.
The analysis stresses that cancellation of formal exams and the use of teacher-assessed grades have also resulted in an increased number of qualified applicants. This, it adds, has created significant capacity challenges.
Prof Scott said extending the additional places arrangement would be vitally important. “Without these extra places universities will ultimately be forced to reduce first-year intakes to compensate for the larger numbers flowing through, which will undermine efforts to meet future access targets,” his report warns. “As student demand is increasing, and projected to increase further, the failure to increase funded places would reactivate fears about applicants from more advantaged backgrounds being ‘displaced’.”
Prof Scott’s report also calls for consideration of a new access target that would include those in the quintile immediately above the poorest 20 per cent as classified by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD).
“Having this double measure would also ensure that applicants from communities in the second most deprived quintile do not get squeezed between SIMD20 applicants and applicants from more socially advantaged communities,” it states.
Prof Scott said there used to be a worry that, if universities admitted more students from deprived areas, others would lose out.
“Until a couple of years ago, there was quite a strong argument made that a lot of the widening access measures might have the effect of displacing people who are better off and had high grades,” he added.
While stressing there is not much evidence this happened on a significant scale, Prof Scott told The Herald: “If the Government didn’t actually increase the number of places in the subsequent two years [beyond 2020-21 and 2021-22], universities would have to rein back their first year to actually balance things. Now, I think there’s a good chance the Government will provide it but any opportunity to remind them they need to do this is worth taking. Because, obviously, if they don’t, this whole issue about richer people getting displaced might come to the fore again.
“If you assume the number of funded places is 100 – first year places, that is – and, at the moment, you’re admitting 15 from SIMD20 and suddenly you make it 18, those three extra places, unless you increase 100 to 103, have to come from somewhere. Someone else potentially loses out. [For] the other four quintiles, there will be fewer places available for them.”
Prof Scott’s remarks came as a separate report from the Scottish Funding Council showed that a key national access target had been met ahead of time.
According to SFC figures, 16.4 per cent of people living north of the Border and starting a full-time degree course in 2019-20 were from the 20% most deprived areas. The target, set in 2016, was for individuals from these districts to make up 16% of first degree entrants by 2021.
Prof Scott’s report acknowledges that “very welcome” progress has been made on widening access. However, it says there were signs that the rate of improvement was slowing even before the arrival of Covid-19.
Warning against “complacency”, the document adds: “A general belief has developed that Scotland has a good story to tell on fair access, which is largely but not wholly true, which in turn may have led on to another belief, that the (main) job has been done. In fact the hardest work lies ahead.”
It also says the pandemic could lead to a widening of the povertyrelated attainment gap, especially in schools that have suffered the greatest disruption.
“As a result the pool of qualified SIMD20 applicants might shrink, making it more difficult for universities to meet the 2026, and 2030, targets,” the report says. “The effects on school progress will not be a time-limited emergency but be felt for several years ahead.”
Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Higher Education, Further Education, Youth Employment and Training, said: “The Government made significant and welcome progress towards meeting the Government’s fair access targets in the pre-Covid period, as demonstrated by meeting ahead of time the 2021 interim target (that 16% of entrants should come from the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland).
“The Covid crisis has enhanced the challenges that we face in overcoming barriers to fair access. We will continue to work postively with the Commissioner to tackle these challenges.”