The creation of a more socially mobile and fairer society is fundamental to what progressive politics is about – and at the heart of re-creating society for the better is education.
That means that making access to education fairer should be the very foundation of progressive politics – the issue that is the very bread and butter of Left politics.
An abiding frustration of mine is that too many in the UK – especially the coalition government – have lost sight of the value of education. In countries around the world it is taken as a given that at the heart of any social or economic strategy is education. It’s the continuing duty of the Left in the UK to champion the value that we should place to education.
One of the brightest achievements of devolution in Scotland so far, and one that progressives around the UK and beyond should celebrate, is the continuing development of a far more egalitarian educational system here.
And those egalitarian principles have been turned into policy reality, often through cross-party consensus, with the abolition of tuition fees for Scottish and EU students, the protection of college and university places, the protection of the EMA and college bursaries, commitments to improve HE student funding and increased public investment in universities. However, despite all of these positive developments, Scotland’s record on widening access remains stubbornly poor.
Some have sought to leave the blame for this solely with Scotland’s school system and the endemic poverty which blights parts of the country.
A school of thought has developed that argues that somehow even tuition fees wouldn’t make a difference to widening access either way, so long as we channel all of our efforts into improving schools.
The goal of our new report Unlocking Scotland’s Potential was to get to the bottom of some of those arguments, to expose persistent myths about fair access and to trace the causes of the social divides that continue to exist in Scottish Higher Education.
The conclusion of our new report is clear: while universities can’t do it all on fair access, they can certainly be doing much, much more.
Our report shows that there’s far more to fair access than blaming just poverty or our schools. After all, we’ve seen some incredibly hard won improvements in poverty, and improvements in the school results of our most deprived pupils, but with little corresponding improvements in fair access to university.
In turn, we find there is plenty that universities can do to widen access. Summer schools, alternative admissions, and routes for applicants to ‘top-up’ school grades are proven to work in promoting fairer access.
At the other end of the political spectrum, we need to win the public battle against the idea that this somehow making access to education fairer is some form of insidious ‘social engineering’.
To dispel this myth our report highlights evidence which shows that students from the most deprived backgrounds (even those with lower school grades), can at least match, and often outperform, students from more privileged backgrounds.
Making access fairer, therefore, is not about charity, it’s about developing a genuine meritocracy in our society, and about ensuring that our universities are fulfilling one of the core roles: making sure that they provide opportunities to those with the most potential to succeed. Only then will they be fully succeeding in their duty to the nation to fully unleash the potential of Scotland’s greatest natural resource – its people.
We have a real opportunity to make fairer access a reality over the coming years. Abolishing fees, protecting places and boosting student support opens the door to widen access in Scotland, however, by themselves, they are not enough.
On current progress in Scotland it would take 40 years to reach fair access. Quite simply that is far too long for us to wait for an education system to come along that mirrors Scotland’s social diversity. Universities need to hugely expand their work on fair access at the local level, and the government must back this up with legislation at the national level.
We want to work with universities, and all interested parties, to make access to Scotland’s great universities fairer. But I also hope Scotland’s education system can provide a blueprint for education throughout the UK. Our goal throughout should be to fight for access to education to be based on the individual’s merit and potential, not on their background and financial backing.
We have a unique opportunity in Scotland to provoke the necessary consensus that our universities need to change, that they need to level the playing field, and I hope that Unlocking Scotland’s Potential can mark the start.