Higher Education Access

– in the Scottish Parliament on 30th May 2017.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on widening access to higher education. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The minister will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow approximately 20 minutes, or perhaps a little bit extra, for questions but I ask members please to ask questions instead of making long statements.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I thank the minister for prior sight of her statement. I also welcome the work that has been undertaken by Sir Peter Scott, by the universities themselves, by Universities Scotland and by the Scottish funding council.

I have two important questions. First, will the Scottish Government address Audit Scotland’s concerns about the overall financial sustainability of the higher education sector, and, in doing so, will the Government make available the necessary financial resources to expand the number of university places so that there is minimum displacement of better-off students, many of whom are finding it harder to get into university these days, despite having top-quality entry qualifications?

Secondly, according to the UCAS statistics that the minister mentioned, while the number of students who come from deprived backgrounds going to university is rising in Scotland, we still lag considerably behind other United Kingdom jurisdictions in percentage terms. Will she explain why she thinks that that is happening and say what plans she has to provide more bursary support?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Liz Smith will be well aware that the Scottish Government is investing more than £1 billion in the higher education sector. That demonstrates our commitment to the sector and our belief in the world-leading reputation of our higher education institutions.

Liz Smith talks about increasing the number of places as if there is a simple solution to widening access and all we have to do is increase the number of places. Of course, that debate is relevant and it should be had, but we must bear it in mind that other countries keep on increasing the number of places but still face the challenge of widening access. The commissioner brought that up when he told the Education and Skills Committee that increasing the number of places was not the answer to the widening access challenge.

Liz Smith has brought up displacement previously, but she does not recognise that what was demonstrated clearly in the commission’s work was that there is an inherent, systemic unfairness about the way in which we distribute publicly funded places. We cannot simply assume that the best people will get to university if we continue to increase the number of places; the issue is much more complex than that. The Government is continuing to invest in widening access places through the Scottish funding council, and that investment is paying dividends, but we need a much more detailed solution, which I expect to come through the framework for fair access that the commissioner is developing.

Finally, Liz Smith talked about comparisons with the UK. I urge some caution when people make such comparisons, not because the Scottish Government thinks that they are not helpful but because UCAS has also said that, as it means comparing two very different systems. For example, the English figures do not discuss the wide range of subjects that are provided in our college sector, and we simply cannot compare two different systems and not recognise the number of places in our college sector that lead to higher education. The commission recognised and made recommendations on that, and our officials are working with officials from across the UK on how to make genuine like-with-like comparisons with UK institutions. That is the only way that we can provide a better solution.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I thank the minister for early sight of her statement.

The Government’s purpose that every child, no matter their background, should have an equal chance of going to university is one that we certainly share and I welcome this update on the progress that has been made.

However, I agree with the minister that the pace of progress is too slow. Indeed, the 2021 target for students from the 20 per cent most-deprived backgrounds to represent at least 16 per cent of full-time first-degree entrants to university is now a mere four years away. The minister used a figure for 18-year-olds, but the funding council figures for entrants aged under 21 show that it has taken 10 years to get from 8.7 per cent to 10.4 per cent. In fact, the figure fell back slightly in 2015-16. Does the minister really have confidence that the measures announced today will produce a leap from 10 to 16 per cent in only four years?

The minister was sceptical about simple solutions but one measure that researchers such as the Sutton Trust have recognised as being effective is the ring-fenced funding of additional widening access places. However, that funding was abolished in 2016 as a result of higher education funding cuts. Will the minister reinstate that ring-fenced funding in light of the urgency of the looming 2021 target?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Iain Gray is quite right to point out the challenge of reaching the interim targets. I have set out the work that the Scottish Government will do and the work that the Scottish funding council will do, but much of the work will be completed by the institutions themselves.

As members in the chamber are quick to point out to me, the institutions are independent from Government and we need to work with the sector to ensure that they are up to meeting that challenge. That is why I spoke about ensuring full transparency in the outcome agreements and an openness around the scale of the challenge in certain institutions in reaching their targets. Also, looking at the picture institution by institution, although we can see that many are doing exceptionally well, both in widening access and in articulation, it is fair to say that others are not doing as well as they should be. We need to shine a light on and share good practice.

Iain Gray is right to point out the challenge around the pace of change. That is exactly why I announced the foundation of the delivery group. We can bring together the individuals who are responsible for delivering that change, both inside and outside Government, so that we work together towards implementation.

One of the most important aspects is the access thresholds, with universities not only having the working group’s reports but then implementing that recommendation. That will have to be done quickly to allow prospectuses to be put in place to meet the timetable.

As a Government, we are continuing to invest in widening access places, and we have ensured that we will continue to do that. I pointed out in my statement that we are moving forward on medical places to ensure that we look at the work that is required in medical training to widen access. The Government continues to take seriously and invest in that area.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I have 10 back benchers who want to ask questions, so I ask for crisp questions and crisp answers, please.

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the education secretary.

When we think about widening access to—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No, I want a question and I expect you to set an example. Start with a question, please.

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

Can the minister outline what role she sees for colleges as part of the widening access agenda?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

The Government and I recognise the important role that colleges play in widening access. They often open the door to further and higher education for the first time to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Articulation, in particular, is a stepping stone for those who begin at college and move on to degree level. That is why I am keen to see further work on articulation and, indeed, articulation with full credit.

I am pleased that Universities Scotland has developed a work stream around that.

The importance that we place on colleges is demonstrated by the fact that the commissioner for fair access will include a college representative on the framework for fair access development group, and someone from the college sector will be included in the delivery group that I have just announced.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I want to return to the point that was raised by my colleague Liz Smith. What advice will the minister give parents whose children will no longer be offered a university place because they are not in the percentage that has been mentioned? Should they go to England? Should they get a job? What advice—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

A short question, please. Do not develop it.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

What I would say to any parent or young person is that they have a Scottish Government that is determined to ensure that all young people will have fair access to university places in Scotland and opportunities in that regard. We will approach the issue on the basis of free education, so that we do not burden students with the level of debt that we are seeing down in England.

I struggle to think why Jeremy Balfour would want to encourage us to look to what is happening in England, not only because of the level of debt down there but because the United Kingdom Government has taken away maintenance grants from new entrants into university. The Scottish Government will not be following that action, and I think that every parent in the country will be pleased about that.

Photo of James Dornan James Dornan Scottish National Party

I am delighted that the Government has delivered on its commitment to introduce a full bursary for care-experienced young people. Can the minister explain in more detail the inclusive approach that she alluded to, and say how the age limit of 26 was arrived at?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

We considered carefully the options for eligibility for the bursary, taking into account a range of evidence and discussions that my officials and I had with stakeholders, including Who Cares? Scotland.

We have taken an inclusive approach on the issue. Anyone who has been looked after by a local authority is considered to be care-experienced for the purposes of the bursary, with no timescale applied to that experience that might limit that eligibility. The age limit was arrived at to align with the current legislation to provide continuing care to young people leaving care in Scotland, up to the age of 26.

I was delighted this morning to meet some care-experienced students at the University of Strathclyde and to discuss with them the difference that the bursary will make to them and others in the sector and how it will encourage care-experienced young people to get into university. I was delighted to see that example of real progress being made.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

Given that, in 2013, the Government cut the maximum bursary that is available by almost £1,000, can the minister confirm that the issue of student cost of living will be considered by the development and delivery groups and that they will examine the restoration and, indeed, the improvement of bursary levels and eligibility thresholds?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

As the member is no doubt aware, a review of student support is on-going at this time. That review, which is independent of Government, will consider a variety of aspects of delivery in higher education and further education, and the impacts on students.

I am aware that the commission recommended that the commissioner carry out his own research into student finance. He has chosen not to do so at this point, given that there is an on-going independent review. However, he has met the chair of the review, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, to discuss their work and ensure that there is no duplication and that there are no gaps. They are working closely together, and the commissioner will draw his own conclusions about whether he wants to make any further recommendations or carry out any research on the matter within his work programme.

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

How will contextual admissions and access thresholds ensure that talent is evaluated fairly? Have universities that already offer grade adjustments experienced a drop-off in academic standards?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Clare Haughey is right to point out that many universities already use contextualised data, and many of them make significant adjustments to entry tariffs.

None of them has seen a drop-off in standards within that. I discussed the matter with the admissions officers at the University of Strathclyde this morning, and they spoke about the fact that there has been no drop-off in standards because of contextualised admissions.

It is important that we recognise that there is growing evidence out there to suggest that grades alone are a completely inadequate selection device for universities to use. Pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds do just as well as, if not better than, their more affluent peers even though their attainment on leaving school might be lower. There is no reason for contextualised admissions to result in any disadvantage in the higher education institutions, but there is real advantage to their developing the work further and ensuring that the good practice that takes place in some universities and courses spreads throughout the entire system.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

Given that the minister and the commission have emphasised the need for a whole-system approach, will the minister clarify how the Government will ensure that barriers outwith the education portfolio, such as increasingly expensive public transport and exploitation in the private rental sector, will be addressed and not lost in a siloed approach that focuses on widening access within the education portfolio alone?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The question has been asked, minister.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Ross Greer makes an important point. We need to give holistic consideration to the challenges that are affecting students, including the cost of public transport and of accommodation in halls and in the private rented sector. All such things have an impact on students as they go through their university careers.

I am keen to ensure that, when we look at widening access, we do not just look at widening access to freshers fairs but continue to look at widening access to people completing their degree programmes successfully. All those challenges will need to be borne in mind as we do so.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I thank the minister for the advance copy of her statement. On Sunday, Andrew Neil pressed the First Minister five times—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No, no—I want a question, Mr Rumbles. You are not special.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

—on the impact that cutting grants has had for students from poorer backgrounds.

I can come to the front bench if you want me to ask my question from the front bench, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No—you are a back bencher. I want your question, please.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I want your question, please.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Well, you can have my question. I will ask it now.

Does the minister believe—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Look—sit down a minute. I am not getting into barneys. The front benchers who are to get longer are Ms Smith and Iain Gray. You are not down to speak for longer than anybody else and you will ask your question just like everybody else. Please ask it now.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

How dare you speak to me like that? You ask your question now, please, and take that back.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does the minister believe that the decision to halve the value—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I said that you should apologise to the chair for that remark, Mr Rumbles. I am not happy.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I am not happy either, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I know that you are not, but I am in the chair and you had a question—

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Indeed, and I am very respectful—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Please sit down again and take a moment to yourself. I will take the next question while you are thinking about this.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

What steps are the Government and universities taking to ensure that young people not only get the chance to go to university but can sustain their place and complete their degree?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

As I mentioned in my answer to Ross Greer, the retention of students plays an important part in the discussions that we are having about widening access. A great amount of good practice takes place in our universities to support students, whatever background they come from. There is also much to learn from what happens in the further education sector and colleges in the front-line support that support staff give to students. All that needs to be taken on board in a systemic approach to ensure that retention is taken seriously by the universities, as I have every confidence it is.

Photo of Alexander Burnett Alexander Burnett Conservative

Will the minister confirm that the next stages of progress can be achieved via the outcome agreements that have been agreed between the Scottish funding council and the institutions and not by the introduction of further legislation?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

As I said in my statement, we are placing a great deal of trust in the outcome agreements and drawing together the information in its totality. Each institution will have to report in a public fashion on how it succeeds with the challenges that it is set for the developments.

The outcome agreements are still relatively new, but they need to be taken seriously by the universities and the funding council, as I know that they are. The commission suggested that the Government and the funding council should look at other options if universities do not live up to the challenge that has been presented to them. However, given the continued assurances that I am receiving from Universities Scotland, I am confident that there is no reason for the universities not to succeed or to meet the pace of change that is required. I expect them to live up to the challenge.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

How does the minister intend to deliver the blueprint for fairness, which advocates a whole-system approach to achieving equal access and acknowledges that long-term change needs the involvement of the wider education system from the earliest age?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Stuart McMillan is right to point out that we need a whole-system approach. The commission took that seriously in its deliberations. The Government intends to follow through on that through the delivery group, to ensure that we better co-ordinate longer-term work.

As I said in my statement, the group will include not only those who will deliver the recommendations that the commission specifically mentioned but individuals and representatives from the wider education system, who have a responsibility to support and challenge those of us who will be responsible for delivering the recommendations.

A great deal of work will be undertaken to ensure that the widening access work is taken seriously across the education sector. We will continue to feed in not only what we are doing in the delivery group but, for example, the work of the review of the learner journey, to ensure that we deliver on the whole-system approach.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Rumbles, I must have an apology first.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Presiding Officer, I apologise if there has been a misunderstanding between us.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you very much. Just ask your question.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does the minister believe that the decision to halve the value of grants and bursaries in the past five years is consistent with the objectives of widening access?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

As I have previously said to Mike Rumbles, the Scottish Government has an on-going review of student support, chaired by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, which will look seriously at student support issues. I remind the member that the level of student debt in Scotland is still the lowest of such levels in the UK. The changes that he referred to were made to ensure a minimum income guarantee from a combination of bursaries and loans. We have agreed to review the position, and I look forward to seeing the recommendations that the independent review chaired by Jayne-Anne Gadhia will make to me in due course.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes questions to the minister. There will a short pause to allow members to take their places.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

This Government wants every child, no matter their background, to have an equal chance of going to university. Statistics show that, currently, that is not the case. Where a child is born and the area in which they grow up conspire to make it harder—much harder—for young people from Scotland’s most deprived backgrounds to go to university. That is not acceptable.

That is why this Government established a commission on widening access and accepted all 34 recommendations in “A Blueprint for Fairness: The Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access”. Crucially, we accepted its ambitious targets to widen access so that by 2030, 20 per cent of students who enter university will be from Scotland’s 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds. The Government also agreed to report on progress one year on, so I welcome the opportunity to do so today. I can advise Parliament that we have published a written report on progress, which is now available on the Scottish Government website.

I want to make it clear that, in addition to the fact that we are making progress on delivering the recommendations in “A Blueprint for Fairness”, there are clear signs of progress on the outcomes for our young people. The latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that in 2016 a record percentage of 18-year-olds from the most deprived areas in Scotland entered university. The entry rate of 10.9 per cent represents a proportional increase of 51 per cent since 2006. Those statistics show that there is change; it is just that it is not happening at the pace that is required. That is why the widening access commission set out five “foundational recommendations” that it has determined are necessary in order to deliver the step change that is required. I can advise Parliament that two of those foundational recommendations have been implemented, and that the rest are currently on target to deliver to timescale.

In December, I was pleased to announce the appointment of Professor Sir Peter Scott as Scotland’s commissioner for fair access. His knowledge, experience and commitment to equality and fairness are already playing a pivotal role in driving forward the system-wide approach that is required to create equal access. I want that to continue; therefore, I can announce that Sir Peter has agreed to continue as commissioner for a further year.

The commissioner is tasked with delivering the framework for fair access, which will set out what works and how to deliver it. The framework will be based on robust evidence. Professor Scott has made it clear that those who are working on access should play a key role in the development of the framework, and that its main purpose should be to support and enhance the work that they do. To achieve that, he has convened a development group that is chaired by Conor Ryan, who is a former commission member and is director of research and communications with the Sutton Trust. The framework, which will be published in 2018, will, in effect, set out a route map for delivery of fair access.

The foundational recommendations also set an immediate challenge for the Government, which is that it provide a full bursary for students with care experience, and they set universities the challenge of guaranteeing those students an offer of a place. I can advise the Parliament that, from the current academic year of 2017-18, care-experienced students under 26 can apply for a bursary of £7,625 to support their living costs. That mirrors the current minimum-income guarantee for the least well-off students in higher education and will make a real difference to some of our most vulnerable young people.

We have taken an inclusive approach to determining and defining “care experience”, and have listened carefully to the voices and views of people with care experience. As a result, more than 100 young people with care experience have already been awarded a bursary for study in 2017-18. We have been assured by institutions and by Universities Scotland that care experience is already considered during the admissions process. However, it is vital that that translates into those students who apply for entry in 2017-18 who meet at least the minimum admission standards being offered places at university.

The final foundational recommendation concerned the 2030 target and the milestones that are to be met in 2021 and 2026 on increasing access. It also included the target for individual universities that, by 2021, students from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds should represent 10 per cent of all full-time first-degree entrants to each university in Scotland. The Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council has integrated those targets in its outcome agreement guidance. Furthermore, institutions have been advised that, from 2018-19, they will be expected to use additional widening access places solely to support intake of students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland.

I want to be clear today about my expectations of our universities. We can be very proud of our world-class university sector and the success that universities deliver. Indeed, statistics that were published only last week show that, in 2016, 35.8 per cent of workers in Scotland aged 25 to 64 were graduates, which is the highest percentage on record. However, there is disparity between universities in respect of the backgrounds of young people who study in them, and that must change. Every young person must have equal chances and choices to study at any of our Scottish institutions.

My first expectation for the coming year is that the funding council will ensure that the access targets that are set through the outcome agreement process are sufficient to deliver on our interim targets. By that, I mean not only the overarching national target but all the targets for institutions and full-time first-degree entrants. I also expect the funding council to monitor progress to identify where targets are not being met or where more challenging targets are required. I expect that to be done transparently in order to set out clearly and publicly the access-related activity and ambitions that are set by institutions through the outcome agreement process, and to report on the progress that is made against them.

Implementation of the commission’s recommendations in relation to university admissions will be key to achieving those milestones and meeting those targets. In addition to its recommendation for more transparency around the admissions process, the commission recommended that all universities set access thresholds by 2019. I am pleased that Universities Scotland has commenced work on that through an admissions working group. It is one of three working groups, with the other two focusing on articulation and bridging programmes. All three groups are due to report by early autumn, after which universities will have to start implementing the recommendations.

I welcome the leadership that Universities Scotland has shown in those areas. However, I am acutely aware of the lead-in time that institutions will need in order to make changes to admissions processes and to ensure that those are communicated to prospective students in time for them to apply. I therefore expect universities to make clear and demonstrable progress in that area over the next 12 months in order to ensure delivery of the access thresholds in time for the academic year 2019-20.

Progress has also been made on a programme of work to take forward the data recommendations. The commission made it clear that, although the Scottish index of multiple deprivation is the most robust measure that we have at this time, we must develop a more comprehensive methodology to identify the backgrounds of students. My officials are liaising with universities to identify the data that they currently use and that they will need going forward. The evidence base in that area is growing; new research was published in December, and further research from Durham University is due later this year. A group is now being established to determine the best measures to use, and it will deliver that work by 2018, in line with the commission’s recommendation.

In the past year, we have created and enabled space within which all stakeholders in the widening access agenda could explore and establish their thinking on how best to implement “A Blueprint for Fairness”. However, the commission made it clear that a whole-system approach would be needed to achieve our aim, which requires the whole education system to work together to deliver collectively on the blueprint’s recommendations. I can therefore announce today the establishment of a delivery group to co-ordinate and monitor progress of implementation across all parts of the education system.

The group will include those who have a key responsibility for delivering aspects of change, and individuals and representatives, such as the National Union of Students Scotland, who have a wider stake in the outcome of our actions. It will, of course, involve Sir Peter Scott as our commissioner for fair access. In recognition of the importance that Government places on the group’s role, I will chair it myself.

The Government’s work to reduce inequalities in higher education did not start, and will not end, with the commission’s recommendations. We have introduced statutory access agreements, and we have invested £128 million in widening access and providing articulation places over the past four years. This year, we also introduced 40 new places through our pre-medical year entry programme, which aims to assist students from socially deprived backgrounds to enter medicine.

Implementing “A Blueprint for Fairness” is undoubtedly challenging for everyone involved. However, it provides a significant opportunity to change our education system and, in the process, to change the lives of the young people who need equal chances and choices the most. The progress that I have set out today demonstrates that we are determined to address the challenge in order to deliver that opportunity.