A RECOVERY fund is now needed as part of "radical action" to help combat the inequalities and even discrimination that has been exposed and "exacerbated" in people's access to higher education.

Scotland's fair access tsar says universities should consider adjusting minimum entry requirements further as he described a "triple whammy" of hits to deprived communities.

Pete Scott, the commissioner for fair access says an increase in the number of funded places for Scottish students, which was made to accommodate higher-than-expected Higher and Advanced Higher grades this year, should be made permanent, to avoid the risk of opportunities for disadvantage applicants "being squeezed".

And he said the Scottish Government, the Scottish Funding Council and institutions, should consider a Covid-19 recovery fund, focused in particular "on addressing ‘digital poverty’, financial hardship and poor mental health among students".

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.

And Mr Scott said an interim target for 18-per-cent of entrants to come from the most deprived communities by 2026 should be reaffirmed, "regardless of any loss of momentum (or ground) that may have been experienced as an unintended consequences of measures taken to combat Covid-19.

He said the "headline" from his interim findings was that Covid-19 had "exposed, and exacerbated, existing inequalities of access to higher education".

"In short, to paraphrase the Matthew principle, "to those that have least, the most is being taken away", he said.

"There is no longer room for scepticism about fair access, and the priority it should enjoy in the future development of higher education in Scotland."

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.

HeraldScotland:

And the new analysis says 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".

Mr Scott, professor of higher education studies at UCL's Institute of Education,  warned 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.

He 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.”

Mr Scott said: “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.

He also suggested that targets for increasing the proporition of Higher National Qualification entrants to universities should be "reinforced" in the light of concerns that they may have been "crowded out".

Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said that the Commissioner's analysis confirmed that they "expected", that Covid-19 has "had an adverse effect, particularly for the most disadvantaged, and the report also underlines the importance of addressing fair access". She added: "Therefore, ensuring progress will be even more critical over the next few years, a challenge that colleges will rise to as we go forward."

“The report rightly highlights digital poverty as an issue that needs to be addressed. The global pandemic has accelerated the use of online and digital learning across the sector and it’s more important than ever that students are able to fully participate in that as colleges continue with blended learning. No one should be left behind because of lack of access to the necessary equipment and technology.

“Colleges are intrinsic to helping create a fairer society and the sector will continue to ensure that all learners, regardless of age or background, have equal access to education.”

A Universities Scotland spokesman said: “We welcome the Commissioner’s recognition of the hard work that universities have done to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. We share his affirmation of the value of in-person teaching for students from challenged backgrounds.

“Universities are committed to wide access to higher education, and to supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed in their studies. The pandemic accentuates the importance of this. A clear statement of support from the Scottish Government in the forthcoming budget would be to see the teaching grant, which contributes towards our widening access action, lifted to sustainable levels.”