Coronavirus (COVID-19): impact on fair access to higher education - interim report 

This interim report "The Impact of COVID-19 on Fair Access to Higher Education" published today (Wednesday, 30 December 2020), considers both the direct impact of the public health measures that have had to be taken and indirect impact of actions taken by Scotland's colleges and universities to mitigate the worst effects of these measures.

This interim report from the Commissioner for Fair Access on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on fair access to higher education considers both the direct impact of the public health measures that have had to be taken and indirect impact of actions taken by colleges and universities to mitigate the worst effects of these measures.

The headline is that COVID-19 has exposed, and exacerbated, existing inequalities of access to higher education.

  1. The number of infections, hospital admissions and deaths has been higher in areas of social deprivation. Public health interventions as a result have been more restrictive. There has been more disruption to schools. The impact on jobs and incomes has been greater.
  2. Pupils, and potential and actual students, from more socially deprived homes have found it more difficult to engage with the shift to more online delivery. Their access to IT, reliable Wi‑fi and secure study space has been limited compared to that enjoyed by their more socially advantaged peers.
  3. All institutions have worked hard to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. The Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council have also made welcome interventions. But the greatest burden has fallen on those institutions that have the highest proportions of students from disadvantaged areas but also the most limited resources.

In other words – a triple whammy for applicants and students from deprived communities.

However, there is a second – and more hopeful – headline.

By shining a spotlight on existing inequalities in access to higher education, the COVID-19 emergency has provided both a powerful endorsement of the priority given to fair access by the government, the targets it has set, the initiatives taken by the SFC (and other agencies) and the policies adopted by institutions; and it has also provided an equally powerful reinforcement of the need to take even more effective, and urgent, action.

There is no longer room for scepticism about fair access, and the priority it should enjoy in the future development of higher education in Scotland.

Shona Struthers 100x100Commenting, Shona Struthers, Chief Executive of Colleges Scotland, said:

“The Commissioner’s report confirms what we expected – COVID-19 has had an adverse effect, particularly for the most disadvantaged, and the report also underlines the importance of addressing fair access.  Therefore, ensuring progress will be even more critical over the next few years, a challenge that colleges will rise to as we go forward.

“The report rightly highlights digital poverty as an issue that needs to be addressed.  The global pandemic has accelerated the use of online and digital learning across the sector and it’s more important than ever that students are able to fully participate in that as colleges continue with blended learning. No one should be left behind because of lack of access to the necessary equipment and technology.

“The report also highlights the impact on staff, with colleges working hard throughout the pandemic to deliver remote learning and to ensure that students have devices to access their classes online.  There remains, however, challenges around connectivity and infrastructure in some areas, as well as access to suitable home learning environments. Therefore, we are pleased that colleges can continue to offer vulnerable students much-needed restricted access to campus facilities and ongoing support.

“Mental health is another area of concern identified by the Commissioner and, while colleges have put in place additional support for both staff and students, it is clear that further resources are required to ensure the ongoing wellbeing of those in colleges across Scotland.

“Colleges are intrinsic to helping create a fairer society and the sector will continue to ensure that all learners, regardless of age or background, have equal access to education.”

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