Introduction by the Commissioner for Fair Access
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.
Commissioner for Fair Access
The Scottish Framework for Fair Access
“I WANT US TO DETERMINE NOW THAT A CHILD BORN TODAY IN ONE OF OUR MOST DEPRIVED COMMUNITIES WILL, BY THE TIME HE OR SHE LEAVES SCHOOL, HAVE THE SAME CHANCE OF GOING TO UNIVERSITY AS A CHILD BORN IN ONE OF OUR LEAST DEPRIVED COMMUNITIES.” Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, 26 November 2014
In 2015 the Scottish Government set up a Commission on Widening Access to advise on the steps necessary to achieve the First Minister’s ambition.
The Commission, Chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, published its final report in March 2016. The report contained 34 recommendations. One of the key recommendations was for the appointment of an independent Commissioner for Fair Access to provided impartial policy advice to the Scottish Government and other organisations. A Commissioner was felt critical to driving progress in the coming years by providing the leadership and system wide approach necessary to advance fair access in Scotland.
Sir Professor Peter Scott was appointed Scotland’s first Commissioner for Fair Access in December 2016.
An annual report is published annually which provides an update on progress made on the recommendations made in the ‘Blueprint for Fairness’.
Recommendation 2 of the Commission on Widening Access’ final report stipulated that by 2018, the Commissioner for Fair Access, working with experts, should publish a Scottish Framework for Fair Access. This authoritative, evidence based framework should identify the most impactful forms of access activity at each stage of the learner journey, from early learning through to higher education and provide best practice guidelines on its delivery and evaluation.
The recommendation was in response to the lack of robust evidence on the effectiveness of access programmes. The Framework should serve several distinct purposes. It should:
- Build evaluation capacity within the sector, identifying, for example, the minimum standards of monitoring and evaluation, based on sound research methodology, that should be embedded in all major access programmes.
- Harness and disseminate current research and new evidence flowing from more rigorous evaluation, to define the most effective interventions.
- Articulate and share practitioner knowledge and best practice across the sector to inform interventions.
The Scottish Framework for Fair Access was launched in May 2019, developed to help access practitioners plan and evaluate new ways of helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds access higher education. It has been designed for use by schools, colleges, universities and the third sector, and provides evidence and advice and highlights best practice by identifying activities that are making the most impact. There are two elements to the Framework:
- Framework for Fair Access toolkit website which provides evidence on activities universities and others can undertake to support access into and through higher education.
- Establishment of Scotland’s Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP) – a forum to share and develop best practice in access support across Scotland.
The Commissioner’s first report – Laying the Foundations for Fair Access – was published in December 2017.
The Commissioner’s second report Building on Progress Towards Fair Access – was published in June 2019
The Commissioner’s third report Fair Access to Higher Education: Progress and Challenges – was published in June 2020
The Commissioner’s fourth report Re-committing to Fair Access: A Plan for Recovery -was published in June 2021
The Impact of Covid-19 on Fair Access to Higher Education – December 2020