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This year COVID-19 has upturned so many areas of society and the education sector is no different. Our Director of Access, Learning and Outcomes, James Dunphy explains why the pandemic makes our goals to widen access even more important.

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Widening Access to education is crucial especially during a global pandemic
This year COVID-19 has upturned so many areas of society and the education sector is no different. Working from home, blended learning along with students returning to institutions have all come with their own challenges in responding to the pandemic. But even through a global pandemic it is crucial that the sector continues to be inclusive and works to widen access to education. Widening access matters because our society is made up of people from different social, cultural and economic backgrounds. We need to make sure that people who might not view learning as an option are aware that education is an opportunity and that everyone regardless of their background has the right to reach their full potential.

While this year has been predominantly about the more immediate health risk of the pandemic it is crucial that a potential rise in economic inequality does not lead to access to education becoming harder for those from the most deprived backgrounds. The Health Foundation has already warned about the potential increase in health inequality as a result of the pandemic. A potential increase in inequality is all the more reason why we must be resolute in our commitment to widening access and continuing to ensure that education pathways are open to all. Colleges and universities will play a crucial role to foster the talents and skills needed for economic recovery and improve prosperity and social wellbeing in a post COVID and Brexit landscape.

Even during the pandemic the appetite for students to want to study in Scotland is increasing. This year 52,265 applicants have been placed at a Scottish University, up 10.0% from the same figure from last year. While it is great to see that Scottish universities are still an attractive prospect during a global pandemic, what is even more encouraging is the continued interest from applicants from Scotland’s most deprived areas: the latest admissions data from UCAS indicates that 16.4% of Scottish domiciled placed applicants come from the 20% most deprived communities. This is excellent news and gives us confidence that we could be on track to meet the interim target set out in the Commission on Widening Access report A Blueprint for Fairness of 16% of full-time first-degree Scottish domiciled entrants to higher education institutions in Scotland coming from the 20% most deprived communities by 2021. The release of HESA’s official student data in January 2021 will confirm whether we are formally on track to meet this target.

Sir Peter Scott, Commissioner for Fair Access, this year in his Annual Report on Fair Access in Higher Education claimed “A focus on fair access now pervades most aspects of higher education. As a result Scotland can 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.” I think this comment speaks to the progress that has already been made in the area but the global pandemic will be a stern test as we strive to reach the next interim target of 18% by 2026 and the final goal of 20% by 2030.

We are starting from a strong position with solid foundations. SFC’s Schools for Higher Education Programme has continued to work hard in exceptional circumstances to support pupils from schools with traditionally low numbers of students progressing to university. The LEAPS project in South East Scotland, for example, has worked hard to deliver its activities and events remotely and has provided pupils with advice about how best to work towards their aspirations during the pandemic.

As we move into 2021 we are focused on our Review of Coherence and Sustainability for Scotland’s colleges and universities. While the Review aims to directly respond to the global pandemic it is also seeking to secure an adaptable and resilient sector that delivers on our outcomes in the future. Protecting and promoting equality and social inclusion, including widening access will be central to the Review.

Unquestionably a vaccine is incredible news, but we still do not know exactly how 2021 will turn out. If we can continue to widen participation during a global pandemic, then we can challenge ourselves to exceed our own expectations in the future.