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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Atrial Fibrillation, Topical Question Time, Climate Change (Emissions Reduction), Higher Education (Widening Access), Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2018 [Draft], Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Relief from Additional Amount) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Relief from Additional Amount) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, LEADER Programme


Higher Education (Widening Access)

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

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 I encourage all members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons now.


The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Scotland has a world-class higher education sector. We currently have five universities in the top 200 in the world and, each year, students from around 200 nations choose to come to our institutions to study.

It is our belief that a child growing up in Scotland should, regardless of their background, have an equal chance of attending one of our great universities. I am also clear that widening access is about access to not just fresher fairs, but graduation day and beyond. Ensuring that students from the most deprived areas of Scotland are supported to achieve their aspirations into, through and beyond higher education is at the core of that. Those end goals of graduation and positive destinations are central to our thinking as we deliver the commission on widening access’s recommendations and they are a key focus and priority for the Government.

Setting out her first programme for government, the First Minister made a crucial commitment when she told the chamber that our task was to ensure that

“a child born today in one of our most deprived communities has no less a chance of going to university than a child born in one of our least deprived communities.”—[Official Report, 1 September 2015; c 20.]

She did so because we consider that education is by far the most effective means that we have to improve the life chances of and to deliver the best possible outcomes for everyone.

We have enshrined the principle of widening access in legislation, placing it at the core of what we expect from post-16 institutions and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council; we continue to invest £51 million a year to support places for access students and those transferring from college into university; and, in 2015, we established the commission on widening access, the recommendations of which we accepted in full.

Since the publication of “A Blueprint for Fairness: The Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access” in 2016, we have embedded our targets within university outcome agreements, introduced a full non-repayable bursary of £7,625 for young care-experienced students and established an access delivery group to oversee delivery. To support that work, we have provided universities with a real-terms budget increase of 1.9 per cent.

We are making progress. Last December, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reported that Scotland had reached a new record for the number of acceptances—the only part of the United Kingdom to see an increase. The acceptance rate for 18-year-olds also reached a record high, increasing for the third year in a row. More significantly, UCAS reported a record rise in the number of 18-year-olds from our most deprived communities being accepted. In total, the number of Scots from the most deprived communities getting places to study at a Scottish university increased by 13 per cent. That means that more than 600 additional people from the most deprived communities were accepted to study at university. We have a record number of Scots going to university and a record number of Scots from the most deprived communities going to university—that is progress.

Sitting behind that progress is a change in perception. We are eating away at the idea that going to university is not something that any child with the ability can achieve. In fact, just last month UCAS revealed:

“Scottish 18 year olds from the most disadvantaged areas are 67 per cent more likely to apply in 2018 than 12 years ago.”

However, we must maintain and, indeed, quicken the pace of change.

Professor Sir Peter Scott’s voice and the challenge that he—as the independent commissioner for fair access—provides to us all are crucial, as he not only provides a fresh perspective on the issues that are central to the widening access agenda, but continues to drive forward change. I thank Sir Peter for his work over the past year. He has established the role of commissioner as one that provides a significant contribution to access in Scotland.

Today’s statement provides an opportunity for me to respond to the commissioner’s first annual report. The majority of the commissioner’s recommendations relate to areas that we are already driving forward as a result of the commission on widening access. Sir Peter has provided valuable advice on implementation and encouraged bolder steps to be taken by the Scottish Government, the Scottish funding council and, in his words, “most institutions”.

I will first respond to the commissioner’s call for the Government to make clearer its priorities on our targets and ambitions for access.

This Government recognises that Scotland’s colleges are a key part of our higher education system and that they play a crucial and valued role in widening access. Colleges often provide the first step into further and higher education. Although they are a valued place of study in their own right, they can also be a stepping stone on to degree-level study at university. However, we are also clear that students from the most deprived backgrounds are well represented in colleges. The greatest inequalities lie in our universities, so I am clear that we will continue to prioritise access to university in our work and our targets for fair access. I reiterate once again that, no matter their background or circumstances, applicants should have an equal chance of going to university by 2030.

When we talk about fair access to university, I do not just mean fair access to some universities. We expect every university to take action now to ensure that, by 2021, 10 per cent of entrants to each university are from Scotland’s 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds. Through the access delivery group, we will continue to see progress towards meeting those targets, but members should be assured that I will look to the Scottish funding council to use the outcome agreement process to ensure that delivery is achieved.

I make it clear that our targets are for learners of all ages. Adult students should and will be given the same priority as school leavers from similar backgrounds in our work on fair access. The framework for fair access will identify the best methods through which to support adult learners into higher education, and I expect learners of all ages to be considered in the work to develop a more co-ordinated approach to access across Scotland.

My vision is of an efficient and flexible tertiary education system in Scotland, which supports all learners to succeed. Our work on the learner journey is examining how we can better connect the different parts of our education system and ensure that learners’ previous education is recognised fairly. I welcome the commissioner’s recommendations on those areas and his insights into how the system can better support learners from our most disadvantaged communities.

As we take forward our work on the learner journey, we will take account of the commissioner’s recommendations on the importance of access within that journey, the need to make more imaginative use of first year at university, and the option for learners with advanced highers to go directly into second year at university, should they wish to do so. The commissioner also made recommendations on articulation, contextualised admissions and bridging programmes, which I fully support.

Universities have committed to taking action on all those points, but we need further clarity on when changes will occur. In each area, universities need to pick up the pace of change and implementation.

I welcome the detailed work that has been put into the development of implementation plans by lead delivery partners, in all those areas, which will be discussed at the next meeting of the access delivery group. However, as with the overall and institutional targets that I mentioned, I will look to the Scottish funding council to intensify its work in those areas, if that is required.

I fully accept the commissioner’s recommendations for the Scottish funding council. This Government recognises the pivotal role that the funding council must play if we are to deliver fair access. I wrote to its chair in October last year to set out my expectations and ambitions for the 2018-19 outcome agreements, and in recent discussions with the funding council I have made clear the way in which I expect it to lead and co-ordinate delivery of a number of recommendations from the commission on widening access.

The commissioner asked the Scottish Government to consider any savings that will be produced by a reduction in demand for places from European Union students. We will take future decisions on the higher education budget as part of our annual budgetary process. However, for anyone in the sector who might be thinking that there is a short cut to achieving our targets through a drop in demand elsewhere, let me be very clear: there is no short cut and there is no magic bullet; widening access will require systemic change. The targets and timescales that we have all accepted from the commission on widening access will not be delivered in any other way.

I note the commissioner’s recommendations on an increase in funded places. I fully understand why the recommendation has been made and we will continue to consider its merits. We are conscious, however, that we are engaged in reforming the system and that that is best achieved by the fairer distribution of publicly funded opportunities. In the end, widening access will be achieved by building a fairer system rather than by continually expanding an unfair system.

Our ambition is for equality throughout the system. By that, I mean equality in relation to not just access but completion of and success in studies, equality in the jobs that access graduates can enter once they have finished their degrees, and an equal chance for those people and their children to succeed. Only then can we create a fairer Scotland.

The minister will take questions.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank the minister for the early sight of her statement. I have three areas of questioning.

First, Sir Peter Scott said in his recommendations:

“the fixed cap inevitably raises concerns that the drive to recruit SIMD20 students may reduce opportunities for other students.”

The point was reiterated by Audit Scotland, and Sir Peter made the same point to the Education and Skills Committee two weeks ago. It is a hugely important point in respect of the wider picture of university entrance and university funding.

Will the minister therefore say today whether the Scottish Government is minded to amend the current structure of funded places? Will she explain exactly what she meant in her concluding remarks when she said that there is “no short cut” to achieving the Scottish Government’s targets through a drop in demand for places from elsewhere? Her answer to that is also crucial to the sector.

Secondly, our universities are particularly interested in what Sir Peter Scott said on the debate about what constitutes academic excellence, and the high standards that have traditionally been the hallmark of the Scottish sector. They want to know whether, in the context of widening access, traditional measures of academic excellence and success will be challenged. What is the Scottish Government’s response on that? Again, it is a crucial question.

Finally, can the Scottish Government tell us the timescale within which universities can expect to receive up-to-date figures on the achievement levels in highers of school leavers by the end of secondary 6—equivalent to those that have been published in Vikki Boliver’s research—to inform their commitment to set minimum entry levels for SIMD 20 students?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I mentioned in my statement, I recognise that some people have concerns about displacement. I point Liz Smith to the fact that the commissioner for fair access has said that

“the available data is suggestive rather than conclusive”.

there is a fear of displacement, but displacement has not been proved in the statistics that we have. As I mentioned in my statement, there has been a 13 per cent increase in the number of students from the most deprived communities being accepted to university. At the same time, there has been an overall increase in the total number of Scottish students at university. That is something that we both can welcome.

I mentioned that there is no short cut for EU students—or for anyone else for that matter. I do not want us to get into a frame of mind in which we think that we will somehow widen access by hoping that enough places will become available and that Brexit—which we, certainly we in the SNP, do not want—will lead to changes in demand. I do not want universities to sit by and to hope and assume that they will get enough widening-access students because something else—the scale and extent of which we do not know—will happen.

There needs to be systemic change to encourage people from deprived communities to apply. I listened to Sir Peter Scott’s evidence to the committee and his discussions about success. As I said in my statement, I want to ensure that we achieve successful outcomes for the people who fill the widening-access places. By “successful outcomes”, I mean their making it to graduation day and securing good graduate jobs.

I appreciate that Sir Peter Scott discussed with the committee changes to how a student can get from one year to another, and whether the system needs to be more flexible. That is for universities to look into. When looking at what success is, we must acknowledge that success is the person achieving a good degree at the end of their time at university. That is why we are talking not just about people getting into university but about what happens after graduation day.

I have committed to working with Universities Scotland to ensure that it has information on what happens in individual schools and on academic achievement. However, I will say—the commissioner also made the point—that universities do not need that information in order to set minimum entry requirements, which are based on what students need to get through and to succeed in their degrees. That information might prove to be useful to universities in other avenues, but they do not need it. Universities need to get on with the job of moving on with contextualised admissions and minimum entry requirements. We cannot afford to wait another year for another round of data, and to see another round of students not having access to the university places to which they should have access.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the minister for early sight of her statement. The minister knows that Labour members support her aims of widening access to higher education in general, and to universities in particular.

The progress that we have made is very welcome, but what is especially welcome is the minister’s assertion—which she just repeated—that the issue is about access not just to a freshers’ fair but to graduation day and beyond. She is right; living and surviving at university are important, as is getting there in the first instance. That is why full non-repayable bursaries are so important for care-experienced students. However, surely the minister can see that access to non-repayable bursaries and grants to live on while studying are also critical to young people from deprived backgrounds who are considering university, because they will not be able to turn to their families for financial help.

Will the minister therefore commit to restoring the money that has been cut from grants, and to shifting the balance between grants and loans for living, back towards grants for students from low-income backgrounds?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I begin by noting that Iain Gray and I agree on something, which does not happen often during questions on statements. It is important that we recognise the importance of graduation day and beyond. That deals with the consensual part of Iain Gray’s comments.

As Iain Gray well knows, the review of student support reported at the end of last year, and the Government is due to report back soon on our conclusions on those recommendations. We are looking seriously at all aspects of student support, including bursaries. I hope that Iain Gray can take some reassurance from the fact that the work that officials are doing on the review’s recommendations is based on the first principle, which is to ensure that students from our most deprived communities get the support that they require in order for them to get through university. That is the first principle that we consider, as we look at all the recommendations and all the areas in which the review has asked us to carry out more investigation.

The Presiding Officer

Before I call Ruth Maguire, I remind members that I give the opening speakers from the Labour and Conservative parties dispensation to make a few opening remarks to outline their party’s position. Unfortunately, that dispensation does not apply to everybody, which means that other members must just ask questions, to which they will get a quick answer. That way, we will get through everybody.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Does the minister agree that whatever barriers people face before they get to university, they do not simply disappear the second that they get a place? Given that students from disadvantaged or non-traditional backgrounds are less likely to stay until their second year, are more likely to obtain a general rather than an honours degree, and are less likely to get a first or a 2:1, what is the Scottish Government doing to encourage universities to attach higher priority to retention and to success and achievement, in the context of widening access?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council’s widening access and retention fund is providing £14.7 million of funding in 2017-18 to help students to remain in higher education. That is allocated to the universities that have the highest intake of widening-access students.

We are also ensuring that we use the outcome agreement process to encourage universities to set more ambitious and challenging targets for access. They must also agree improvements in retention and attainment, and in the outcomes for their students. The work that we are doing with the funding council to intensify the outcome agreement process is ensuring that we look not only at entry to university, but at retention and attainment.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

In the context of recommendations 17 and 18 in Sir Peter Scott’s report, how will the Scottish Government ensure that pupils from SIMD 20 areas have more access to advanced higher courses, which will help their chances of taking up more diverse opportunities at university?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We are looking at that as part of the learner journey work that the Scottish Government is undertaking. It is very important that we ensure that school students have the opportunity to study at college or university or to take up an apprenticeship so that they can follow whichever career they choose.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

What role will our schools and colleges play in helping to meet the targets that were set by the commission on widening access? Will the minister consider the feasibility of a pilot study to track the work of the University of St Andrews, as an ancient institution, and a local high school in my constituency, where nearly one child in three lives in poverty?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am very interested in tracking the progress of all the universities, which I follow closely. However, I welcome the work that the new principal of the University of St Andrews has undertaken to given further impetus to the widening access agenda.

I made it clear in my statement that colleges play a crucial role in our higher education system and in widening access. However, we also need to ensure that we are working with primary and secondary schools, where most of our young people will develop their dreams and ambitions for their future lives and careers.

We are taking a whole-systems approach to the issue, which is why I am delighted that, in the next couple of weeks, we will have a seminar at which regional improvement collaborative leads will come together to discuss what more can be done to develop that whole-systems approach. Peter MacLeod, who sits on our access delivery group, will lead that seminar.

It is very important that we encourage our young people to develop their dreams and ambitions, regardless of whether they will finally achieve them in employment, college, university or an apprenticeship. This is apprenticeship week, so I should mention that apprenticeships are exceptionally important outcomes for young people.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

In her statement, the minister pointed to institutions and the Scottish funding council addressing articulation and contextualised admission. However, given that the fundamental issue relates to the differences in approach between institutions, is there not a role for Government in bringing forward a harmonised and co-ordinated system? Might the delivery group look at that? Surely the minister will agree that having a clear view of how youngsters can get to university is what is ultimately important.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I absolutely see that there is a role for Government to encourage articulation. That role will certainly be demonstrated in the next few months when I finalise my letter of guidance to the funding council. That will look at intensifying our outcome agreement process, which will include our work on articulation.

Sir Peter Scott raised very valid points around articulation. I was interested to read his views and, last week, I discussed with him the assumption that young people should have full articulation rather than there being a presumption against that. I had a very interesting discussion with him.

I see a role for Government, which will come through my letter of guidance to the funding council and through expressing in the outcome agreements with the different institutions how we will take that on. The member can be assured that we will discuss that in the access delivery group to see what more can be done by the Government, the funding council and every institution.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

The cost of everything from rent to transport remains a barrier to widening access, and current financial support for students from low-income backgrounds simply does not cut it. Following Iain Gray’s question, I press the Scottish Government to commit to increasing bursaries and equalising support for university and college students, which is essential if we are to successfully widen access to higher education.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said to Iain Gray, the Government will be responding to the recommendations of the review of student support in due course. We will look at the review to see how we can carry out the further investigations that it asked the Government to do. There were some areas that the review did not look at and it made clear that it wants the Government to pick up and investigate certain areas. I point out that we have put £5 million into the budget for initial implementation of that work. Other aspects of the review of student support will require longer implementation if, for example, changes to the Student Loans Company or discussions with HM Revenue & Customs are needed.

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I, too, thank the minister for early sight of her statement.

I met apprentices in Lerwick and Scalloway yesterday—no doubt, many other colleagues have met apprentices this week too. I ask the minister to recognise, in this apprenticeship week, that vocational routes into work are every bit as important as a university education.

Can I have a further go on the line of questioning that Iain Gray and Ross Greer have pushed? Does the minister hope that implementation of the review of student support will be in place for the next academic year? Is she able to give Parliament any details of the timescales that she is working to, given that the very students whom we are seeking to help—those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds—appear from some of the evidence to be the very ones who face more difficult circumstances in terms of the debt burden?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I reiterate that it is important that we encourage young people to choose the destination after school that is right for them. Universities, colleges, direct moves into employment and apprenticeships are all equally valid and valued opportunities for our young people, so the Government’s commitment to widening access to university should by no means be read as a sign that university is the right destination for a young person to choose. It is up to the young person, depending on their ambitions for their career.

I saw the pictures of the member with the apprentices, and it looked a thoroughly interesting visit.

As I said, the review of student support looked at a number of different challenges that we have within the student support system. Some things will be able to be achieved for the next academic year and others will not. If something requires, for example, a change to the Student Loans Company rule book, that will require us to look at a longer time period. If we did not do that but simply piggybacked on a scheme that is already in place, there might be a disadvantage. For example, we might have to join the system that is already in place in England, with a higher interest rate. There would be disadvantages to moving quickly if, by doing that, we joined a system that was detrimental, particularly to those from the poorest backgrounds.

However, that does not mean that the Government is not taking action on the matter. We have already taken action to ensure that almost 3,000 additional students qualified for a non-repayable bursary or saw their funding increase last year due to our decision to raise the income threshold from £17,000 to £19,000, and we confirmed in the programme for government our commitment to raising the repayment threshold for student loans to £22,000 and reducing the repayment period to 30 years, as well as implementing the care-experienced student bursary.

We are taking action on the matter and we will take action for the next financial year where we can, but other aspects of the review of student support will take longer.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

It seems that there is a real disparity between universities in terms of accepting young people from more disadvantaged areas. Does the minister agree that meeting the ambitious targets that we have set cannot be down to the work of just some of our universities and that it is time for our older universities to work a bit harder on this?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have made it very clear in my expectations of the sector that, when I talk about widening access to university, I mean not just some of the universities but each university. The UCAS figures that were published in January demonstrate that good progress is being made on widening access, with the majority of universities showing an increase in applicants from deprived areas. However, targets have been set for individual institutions, and I am determined that they will all be achieved. People from the most deprived backgrounds should have the same choices as everyone else.

I will not get into a position where we are pushing a few institutions that are already performing well to pick up the responsibility for delivering this agenda. Every institution can and must play its part in widening access.

I apologise to the four members who did not get in to ask a question, but I am afraid that we have run out of time. We have too many items of business this afternoon.