Susan Stewart: Flexibility needed to unlock higher education for all

A COHESIVE approach is required from early years on, writes Susan Stewart

Picture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL

That widespread access to quality higher education is essential to social justice and economic wellbeing is probably the nearest thing we have to a universal truth in our politics. We might not always agree on how best to achieve that access, but it’s a strong foundation for the work that needs to be done in Scotland.

The Scottish Government has signalled its intention to implement the recommendations of the Commission for Widening Access to higher education. The ambition is that this will see equal access – 20 per cent of new university entrants coming from the 20 per cent most-deprived communities – by 2030. Central to that will be the appointment of a Commissioner for Fair Access and the development of a national access framework. In its evidence to the Commission, The Open University argued for both these developments.

There is a lot of excellent work on access happening across Scotland, but there are also gaps and duplication, and good practice which could usefully be shared more widely. A national approach to wider access will allow universities to learn from each other, which is important. We work in different contexts and geographies – traditional campus-based universities have an important connection with their local communities, whereas The Open University has students in every postcode area in Scotland – but ideas and thinking on improving access can often be adapted for use elsewhere. But more than this ability to share knowledge and practice, a national perspective opens up the possibility of a genuinely holistic approach to access.

At the moment, we spend much of our time discussing the traditional transition from school to full-time university, but our thinking is disconnected. We can’t make a decision taken aged 16 or 17 the make-or-break point for the rest of our lives. We have to be able to learn throughout our lives. Without that flexibility, we risk writing off all those who had a negative educational experience at school, those who weren’t ready to go to university straight after school, those who made the wrong choice and those who discover later on that they need different skills and knowledge.


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School-leavers are important, but so too are career-changers, women returning to the workplace after having a child, people living in rural or remote locations, those with disabilities who may struggle to get around physical campuses and people who just need a second chance. So when we’re thinking about access, we have to cast the net wider – and look at all of the possible routes into higher education. That includes the flexibility of part-time higher education. Part-time learning is often the only realistic way to study for people with all sorts of commitments, not least those with families or other caring responsibilities. All of these people need support to access higher education.

There isn’t a simple solution to providing that support, because they each have different needs and individual circumstances. That’s why we also have to think again about how we measure access. The current method, which is based on students’ postcodes, is a pretty blunt tool which tells us nothing at all about the individual. A cohesive but flexible education system with early years, schools, colleges, universities and employers all working together will go a long way to improving opportunities regardless of background. We have to think more broadly and more inclusively, because the fact is, we cannot widen access with a narrow focus.

• Susan Stewart is director of The Open University in Scotland