The coronavirus pandemic has “exposed, and exacerbated, existing inequalities” and even discrimination in people’s route to university, Scotland’s fair access tsar has warned.
In a “triple whammy” of hits to deprived communities, he warned there have been a higher number of infections and deaths with public health interventions more restrictive while schools have suffered more disruption and the impact on jobs and incomes has been greater.
And the new analysis by Pete Scott, the commissioner for fair access warned that despite the best efforts of schools and local authorities there is “a real risk the attainment gap between pupils in the most advantaged and most deprived schools will widen as a result of interruptions which have been greatest in areas of the greatest social disadvantage”
And he said that in the context of fair access to higher education it will “clearly take several years for the effects of disruption to schooling to work through, and for the shock to ambitions and aspirations among young people in more deprived communities to wear off”.
Pupils and potential and actual students, from more socially deprived homes have suffered the “major issue of digital poverty” and found it “more difficult” to engage with the shift to more online delivery during the Covid-19 crisis.
Their access to IT, reliable wi‑fi and secure study space has been “limited compared to that enjoyed by their more socially advantaged peers”.
And while all institutions have worked hard to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, the greatest burden has fallen on those institutions that have the highest proportions of students from disadvantaged areas but also the most limited resources, he said.
Mr Scott, professor of higher education studies at UCL’s Institute of Education, warned it will take “several years” to try and recover from the crisis, and said consideration should be given to ensuring the emergency measures implemented by colleges and universities become a permanent fixture,” given how the pandemic has highlighted deep-rooted “disadvantage” and “discrimination.”
It comes as Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon set the higher education sector a target of having 20 per cent of entrants coming from the 20 per cent most deprived communities in Scotland by 2030.
He wrote: “Covid-19 has laid bare the massive, and morally unacceptable, inequalities that exist in society and economy and disfigure our democracy. They are now in plain view. They cannot be denied. There is no longer any room for scepticism about the urgent need for fair access. Nor can these inequalities be minimised, and attributed to gaps in attainment or deficits in aspiration. Effects can no longer be confused with causes.”
He said individual universities and colleges should use indicators of disadvantage to identify those “newly impoverished” as a result of Covid-19, and set their own targets.
He also said universities should look at whether their minimum entry requirements need to be “further adjusted,” given the shift from examinations to teacher-assessed grades, and the widespread interruptions to school attendance.
His interim report also recommended a recovery fund by the Scottish Government, in association with the Scottish Funding Council and other institutions, focused on addressing “digital poverty,” financial hardship, and poor mental health among the student population.