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The Scottish Framework for Fair Access, which has been developed following a recommendation made by the Commission on Widening Access, is designed to produce a step-change in our knowledge about which interventions designed to promote fairer access to higher education work best. It is also designed to act as a focus, even a rallying point, for grass-roots access and participation practitioners in universities and colleges.

The Framework is just one element, although a key one, in a busy policy and practice development scene. It is one of a series of recent initiatives to promote fair access – for example, Universities Scotland’s work on minimum entry requirements, the establishment of a National Articulation Forum and the Scottish Funding Council’s Schools Engagement Framework. All of these initiatives have helped produce a sustained momentum for change, which is already producing impressive results in terms of opening up higher education to more disadvantaged applicants.

The Framework has two pillars:

  • A toolkit to assess the effectiveness of existing interventions to promote fair access;
  • The establishment of Scotland’s Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP)

The toolkit is what it says on the tin, a tool to identify and promote effective interventions. It is not designed to be a rigid template that imposes standardisation. It is crucial to encourage grass-roots initiative, innovation and creativity. The toolkit seeks to address a perennial dilemma that is by no means confined to fair access or even higher education but common to most areas of public policy. On the one hand there is always a cry for ‘more research’ – justified, of course, because there will always be gaps in our knowledge, although never a justification for not getting on with the job in hand. But, on the other hand, there is also often a proliferation of interventions that have been only partially, and therefore not properly, evaluated – although, again, any comparative absence of evaluation must never be used to dent the enthusiasm of dedicated practitioners committed to promoting fair access to higher education. The sheer range of interventions – access courses, summer schools, school engagement, individual and group mentoring, ‘children’s universities’ – is a tribute to the creativity of the sector’s response to the challenge of fair access.

So the toolkit has two goals – to identify gaps in our knowledge of what works; and also to identify, based on a more systematic evaluation of existing interventions, the best available evidence about which are most likely to be effective. Evidence from published papers and responses to the call for evidence will be assessed in terms of three levels. Level 1 covers those interventions where there is evidence of impact but no attempt has been to made to assess their comparative effectiveness – for example, by looking at the experience and achievements of applicants before and after the interventions. Level 2 covers those interventions where there is also evidence of impact, actual and comparative. But no definite causal link has been established. Level 3 covers those where all three conditions have been met – evidence of impact, demonstration of an intervention’s comparative effect and also a clearly established causal link.

Obviously larger-scale quantitative evaluations are more likely to meet these more rigorous criteria. But this does not mean that smaller-scale and more qualitative studies, or studies employing other methodologies, will be judged to be inferior. Indeed there is a particular value in linking to other key initiatives such as the Quality Assurance Agency Scotland’s Enhancement Themes and its ‘Transitions Map’ or Education Scotland’s Learning and Teaching Toolkit developed by EEF. It is very important to emphasise that the aim is not to produce scientific papers that can jump through the peer-review hurdles necessary for publication in an academic journal. Rather the toolkit is aimed at promoting a dynamic process of continuous improvement of real-world interventions led by the practitioners themselves, which substantially and immediately benefit young people and older learners from disadvantaged social backgrounds who nevertheless aspire – or can be inspired – to go onto higher education.

The second pillar of the Scottish Framework for Fair Access is equally important – the establishment of a community of practice. Of course, access and participation practitioners already work together closely, sharing good practice and acting as advocates for greater social justice in higher education. But the Framework will help to strengthen, and systematise, these existing networks. The community will embrace not only practitioners but also both action and academic researchers in the field. Without the community of practice it would be impossible to develop the toolkit; the community will own the toolkit. Practitioners are best placed to identify gaps – and also play the leading role, along with their researcher colleagues, in assessing which of the existing interventions work best by undertaking more systematic evaluation.

Of course, it will take time for the toolkit to cover all fair access interventions. The remarkable progress that has already been made towards fairer access is not only built on existing interventions by universities and colleges but will also lead to the development of new interventions. But there should very soon be enough examples of systematic evaluations of the effectiveness of interventions to demonstrate the toolkit’s enormous potential.

The Scottish Framework for Fair Access, which launched on May 7, is an excellent example of how a bottom-up evaluation framework, as opposed to a rigid top-down template, can work; and also of the virtues of supporting a self-organising community of practice. But, most important of all, it will make a substantial contribution to the cause of improving the life chances of socially disadvantaged young (and not-so-young) people by promoting fairer access to higher education.

Peter Scott
Commissioner for Fair Access

May 2019