Alastair Sim: Universities’ course of action makes applications easier

Early in 2019, school pupils and mature learners from across Scotland will eagerly be flicking or clicking through university prospectuses to see the grades they’ll need to get into the course of their choice.

Early in 2019, school pupils and mature learners from across Scotland will eagerly be flicking or clicking through university prospectuses to see the grades they’ll need to get into the course of their choice.

Scottish universities have just ­completed a huge collaborative piece of work to ensure that, for the first time, our prospectuses adopt ­common wording to describe our admissions processes as clearly, ­consistently and inclusively as ­possible.

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Prospectuses will explain why our institutions are committed to widening access; what we mean by terms such as ‘minimum’ and ‘standard’ entry requirements; and provide a simple and concise standard explanation of what an applicant needs in order to apply. The whole process of applying for and, hopefully, getting into university is an exciting one for learners, as they stand on the brink of a life-changing experience. It can also occasionally be a daunting process, as applicants weigh up where they want to study, consider moving away from friends and family, and carefully check their finances.

Ultimately, the decision on where to apply is for prospective students to take but universities offer a huge range of advice and information for anyone interested in studying in one of our world-class institutions, be that a 17 year old school-leaver or an adult looking to change career by undertaking a part-time degree.

Indeed, the range of learners we ­welcome is incredibly diverse, and we’re doing all we can to ensure that everyone with the talent and ­potential to study at university has the ­confidence to apply. Collectively, our universities offer more than 4,500 courses in over 150 subjects. So while tailored information will also have to be provided in individual prospectuses, the production of common explanatory text represents a significant collaborative effort.

Collaboration doesn’t just mean universities talking to themselves: a group of college students, S5 pupils, adult returners and guidance teachers provided very constructive input into our work.

Universities are working together so that learners who have ­experienced significant socio-economic disadvantage simply because of where they live are not discriminated against when we decide who to admit.

This work can be traced back to the commitments university principals made in Working to Widen Access, our roadmap to help deliver the First Minister’s ambition that a child born in one of our most deprived communities would, by the time he or she leaves school, have the same chance of entering university as a child born in one of our least deprived communities.

In producing our report, research suggested that changes to admissions processes, made with the ­successful aim of widening access, had inadvertently generated a raft of terms such as ‘contextualised admissions’ that meant little to the people they were intended to benefit. A ­further issue was that the language was not ­consistent university to university. We have addressed this too.

Given that all universities aim to help as many learners as possible to succeed and to remove obstacles to getting through our doors, our use of language should not be one of those obstacles.

The rationale for the project was therefore quite simple: prospective students and their advisers have a right to access clear and consistent information, no matter where in Scotland the learner wishes to study.

Agreeing common text for undergraduate prospectuses may seem a relatively simple step but there were challenges. The prospectuses in question will be published by universities in the New Year, and the common text is specifically aimed at undergraduates starting in 2020.

Our work to simplify language is just one of a raft of actions being ­taken collectively and individually by universities across Scotland to break down some of the barriers faced by disadvantaged students. All universities are reviewing their minimum entry requirements. These apply to students whose applications ­suggest they should receive an adjusted offer because, for example, they have clearly experienced socio-economic disadvantage. Universities assess their potential students on potential and recognise that qualifications gained previously does not necessarily guarantee future performance.

Care experienced learners will be guaranteed an offer of a place at ­university if they meet institutions’ minimum entry requirements. Through discussion with other ­bodies, including the Scottish Government’s current review of the care system, we will make sure that our definition of ‘care experienced’ is as clear as possible, so that the maximum number of people can benefit.

We will produce a clear statement for learners on how universities make use of personal statements and references, and take non-Higher qualifications into account in admissions.

We are taking these actions carefully, collectively, and in the strong interests of fairness. We have been engaging fully with stakeholders at all levels our work to ensure that we deliver in a way that will best meet ­students’ needs.

Alastair Sim, director, Universities Scotland.