Robin Parker: ‘Widening Access to Education and the Professions’

Robin Parker is President of NUS Scotland, the representative body for 500,000 university and college students in Scotland.  NUS Scotland are at the forefront of the campaign for widening access to education.




Many thanks for inviting me along tonight, and I can please begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be addressing you, and NUS Scotland’s thanks and congratulations go to Tim for organising not just this, but the campaign as a whole.

This summer we launched a comprehensive piece of research, Unlocking Scotland’s Potential, which showed that Scotland continues to have an extremely poor record on widening access.

This is no different in the professions, and in fact often worse.

  •  Only 115 of entrants to LLB degrees came from the 20% most deprived areas (8.04% of the LLB intake)
  •  In comparison, 12.7% of all university entrants were from the 20% most deprived backgrounds
  • For every one student recruited on to law from the most deprived backgrounds, almost five were recruited from the least deprived backgrounds (a ratio of 1 : 4.7 in law, compared to 1 : 2 for all degree subjects)

And you may be wondering why I have just mentioned undergraduate statistics, and not postgraduate. And the simple answer is that they don’t even exist. And in my view that’s simply not right, and one of the fundamental changes we need to see made.

When we’re talking about all higher education, the need for fair access is obvious and pressing – at the end of the day, it is a core social justice issue, and one which we should all be committed to.

But the argument is equally, and potentially often more so, even important in courses such as law. We entrust our lawyers and judges to make decisions which fundamentally affect people’s lives, and can alter their future.

It’s vital that in order to have the fairest possible judiciary and one which represents everybody in society fairly, that it is representative of society. When we talk about the need to achieve a representative profession, and representatives universities as a whole, our goal should to be able to hold up a mirror to Scottish universities and see a proud reflection of Scottish society. And that goal should be at all levels of education.

We believe that the Scottish Parliament has a responsibility, together with the universities and the professions themselves, to make access to all forms of education fairer, and take proactive action to make professions of societal importance, including the legal profession, more reflective of Scottish society.

While there may be on-going discussions and debate on funding, there are a number of fundamentally important things the government is doing on access.

Outcome Agreements represent a genuine opportunity to set higher standards for us all to aspire to, and work towards, especially universities. It’s vital that these are properly legislated for, and have financial incentives to go along with them.

We know that universities can’t do it all on access, and we do not want to see universities penalised for setting high standards, working meaningfully towards achieving, but falling short. But it is vital that they do undertake this meaningful activity, and not simply fall short of progress through inaction.

If we look around us we see fantastic initiatives to widen access to the professions. Just up the road at Edinburgh their law school is engaged in great efforts to reach out to their surrounding communities, and recruit students from all backgrounds. But we also can, and must, go further and do more.

And equally, too, we must look to employers to engage and take some greater responsibility for fair access to the professions: Providing greater financial support, more opportunities for work experience and employment, and providing a living wage.

Ultimately, there is more we all can, and should, do. Fair access is simply too important to stand on the side-lines, point fingers, or make excuses.

We should be working together to find new and innovative means to ensure that all those with the potential to succeed can do so, and that all professions, universities and opportunities are truly open to all, regardless of background.

In conclusion, there are three fundamental things we need to take away and work together to do:

We need to ensure, through means such as outcome agreements, that universities are considering the professions, and equally UG and PG access, with increases in schemes like Edinburgh’s, and enhanced use of access bursaries. We should continue to involve and consider the role of employers in helping with PG access, though enhanced means such as more paid internships and employment opportunities that contribute to course recognition.

But more fundamentally, our end point should not be piecemeal change, or tinkering at the margins. We need a holistic review of Postgraduate education: What’s it for; what do we even term as postgraduate; what are we trying to achieve; what are we trying to fund; and, ultimately, how do we fund it.

As this campaign shows, there are genuine inequalities which exist in our postgraduate education, and I look forward to working with all of you to begin addressing those.

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