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Coronavirus response could hit participation targets in Scotland

Warning that progress on access could slow, as funding council begins review of university finances

Scotland’s fair access tsar has called for “vigorous action” on widening participation, warning progress could be thrown off course by universities’ efforts to contain damage from the coronavirus.

On 5 June the country’s commissioner for fair access Peter Scott used his third annual report on Scotland’s progress towards meeting its fair access targets to warn efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus, including moving university teaching online and cancelling school exams, “will exacerbate” existing inequalities.

The report is published just as the Scottish government launches a review of the financial sustainability of universities, after predicting large losses as a result of the pandemic.

“Vigorous action needs to be taken to prevent any loss of momentum or reduction of focus on fair access,” Scott wrote, explaining that universities are in danger of sidelining access work as the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic start to bite. He called on the Scottish government to “reinforce its commitment to fair access in higher education as a key priority” in any support given to universities.

Scott’s comments came after the Scottish Funding Council announced on 4 June it would review funding for teaching and research activity in light of the coronavirus, after it found universities will see operating deficits between £383 million and £651 million in the next academic year alone.

Scotland’s further education, higher education and science minister Richard Lochhead said universities “must emerge from this crisis even stronger by being at the heart of our economic recovery” and said the SCF would look at how its funding models could “exploit new opportunities and continue to support our world class further and higher education systems”.

In his report, Scott added that the fallout from Covid-19 had seen the tuition fee debate gaining traction, and he warned that “to resurrect this issue at present would send a very damaging signal in terms of fair access.” Students in Scotland do not pay tuition fees, but universities operate under a de facto numbers cap with a limited number of funded places available for Scottish-domiciled students.

Elsewhere, Scott said fair access “now pervades most aspects of higher education” and that Scotland could “justly claim to be the pace-setter among the nations of the United Kingdom in opening up opportunities for higher education to all groups in the community”.

The Scottish government has a target to recruit 20 per cent of students starting university from the 20 most deprived areas by 2030. Its interim 2021 target to recruit 16 per cent of all new students from the 20 per cent most deprived communities in Scotland has already been achieved.

But Scott warned the rate of progress had slowed to an increase of 0.2 percentage points compared to last year, meaning there “may now be fewer grounds for optimism” that the next target for 18 per cent by 2026 and the final 2030 target will be as easy to reach.

Even when the 2030 target has been met, Scott said there will be “continuing discrimination” as students from more deprived areas will be “under-represented in more selective and the most prestigious universities” and will “cluster in the colleges and the so-called ‘post-1992’ universities”.

Commenting on the report, vice-chancellors’ body Universities Scotland said universities were “in a very positive position” as Scotland is ahead of is access targets, but agreed with Scott that “there’s no opportunity to pause there; it is only going to get harder and he is right to highlight that the coronavirus pandemic poses a range of additional obstacles to widening access at all levels of the education system”.