During the Covid crisis, poor Scots face growing inequalities and ‘discrimination’ in access to higher education

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As the Scottish Fair Access Commissioner warned, the coronavirus pandemic has uncovered and intensified “existing inequalities” and even prejudice on the road to university.

He cautioned that there were higher numbers of illnesses and deaths in a “triple whammy” for deprived populations, with public health measures more stringent, while schools suffered more disruption and the effect on jobs and incomes was greater.

And Pete Scott, the Equal Access Commissioner’s latest report, cautioned that despite the best efforts of schools and local authorities, “there is a real risk that the attainment gap between pupils in the most advantaged and most disadvantaged schools will widen as a result of disruption, which was greatest in areas of greatest social deprivation.”

And he said that in the sense of equal access to higher education, “it will clearly take several years for the impact of disruption to schooling to be processed and for the shock to the ambition and aspiration of young people in disadvantaged communities to wear off.”

During the Covid 19 crisis, students and prospective and actual students from more disadvantaged households suffered from the “main problem of digital poverty” and found it “harder” to engage with the transition to more online provision.

Fair Access Commissioner Professor Peter Scott warns that there is no ‘freedom’ to study for middle-class students with good grades,

Compared to their more socially advantaged peers, their access to IT, reliable Wi-Fi and safe study spaces was’ minimal.’

And while all institutions have worked hard to reduce the effects of Covid-19, with the largest proportion of students from deprived backgrounds but also the most limited resources, the greatest burden has fallen on those institutions, he said.

“Scott, professor of higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, warned that it would take “several years” to recover from the crisis and said that consideration should be given to making emergency measures taken by colleges and universities a permanent fixture” because “disadvantage” and “discrimination” are deeply ingrained in the pandemic.

The report comes at a time when the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has set a target for the higher education sector that 20% of university entrants in Scotland should come from the 20% most deprived communities by 2030.

He wrote:’ The huge and morally unacceptable inequalities that exist in society and the economy and distort our democracy have been revealed by Covid-19. They are out in the open now. It is not possible to refuse them. Skepticism about the immediate need for fair access is no longer possible. Neither can such gaps be trivialized and linked to accomplishment or entitlement deficits. Effects cannot be confused with triggers anymore.

He said individual universities and colleges should use disadvantage measures to recognize those who, as a result of Covid-19, are “newly impoverished” and set their own goals.

He also said universities should consider whether their minimum standards for admissions “need to be further adjusted” in view of the transition from tests to teacher-graded scores and widespread school attendance interruptions.

In collaboration with the Scottish Funding Council and other organisations, his interim report also recommended a Scottish Government recovery fund to concentrate on combating “digital poverty,” financial deprivation and poor mental health among students.

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