An equal chance for all to go to university

Like many children who grow up in some of our poorer communities, I don’t really recall university being an option that was promoted widely as being available or indeed, expected of me. But I was encouraged to get on, to work hard and to aspire to be the best I could be. So getting to university was a big thing for me and my family.

Despite the progress made since the SNP came to power – the number of 18 year olds from the most deprived communities applying to go to university is up 65% since 2006 – it is still a big thing in some schools and communities. Why is that?

Getting to the root of that question lay at the heart of the task set for the Commission on Widening Access when it was established by the First Minister last year. The Commission’s report published today not only digs deep into the complexities behind the barriers to university, but sets out a route map for us all to follow to change things so that we can achieve the ambition that every child, whatever their background, should have an equal chance of attending university. I am extremely grateful to the Chair of the Commission, Dame Ruth Silver and all the Commissioners, for their efforts in providing us with their “Blueprint for Fairness”.

This report represents a milestone in itself. I warmly welcome it, for its comprehensive and forensic analysis of the issues and especially, for its wide-ranging recommendations. Clearly, we will need time to consider all the findings and recommendations in the report. It suggests that there is no quick or easy fix – that is much as we expected. But there are things we can do not just over the long term but more immediately that could make a difference. We will consider them all carefully and aim to bring forward a full response early in the next Parliament.

While we are building on the progress we have already made on improving access, there is more to be done and that can be done more urgently. We can and must pick up the pace and the Commission’s report helpfully signals where we might go further and faster.

We can start by accepting the targets the Commission has recommended. To realise our ambition of equality of access to higher education, by 2030, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education and that this should be seen in both the college and the HEI sector. I agree. The Commission also helpfully sets out milestones we should be aiming to meet to drive progress toward this goal. I am also happy to accept these milestones.

These set out what we should all be aiming to achieve over the next decade. There is no one part of the education sector which can or should carry responsibility for meeting these milestones or indeed, the overall target. If we are to achieve our shared goal, we need schools, colleges and universities to get involved. And we also need communities and families to play a role. If we are to achieve the cultural shift identified by the Commission and deliver its Blueprint for Fairness, national government must lead but we will not succeed if we don’t work with all partners and interested parties. This is a journey we must take and make together, so that it stops being a big thing when a child from a poorer area succeeds in getting to university.

Angela Constance MSP is Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning