By Peter Scott, Commissioner for Fair Access

FAIR access is sometimes treated as a secondary concern in higher education: nice to have but subordinate to the drive to be “world class”. In fact, ensuring that all of the people have a decent opportunity to go to higher education is key to its success.

Fair access can also be seen as a technical matter, something for the admissions people to sort out and strewn with lots of jargon like “contextual offers” and “articulation”. But, again, fair access is central to how we teach and research, the core mission of a university.

Why is it so important? The most important reason is that access to higher education, despite a 10-fold increase in the number of students in the past 50 years, is still deeply unfair. For the middle class it is now the rule. For the less privileged it remains the exception.

In a country like Scotland with an inspiring history of the “democratic intellect” and a deep-rooted commitment to social justice, that can’t be right. Free higher education, in contrast to the high-fees shambles south of the Border, is an essential foundation for free access but it is only the first step.

In my first report as Commissioner for Fair Access I have tried to set out what those next steps should be. Some, admittedly, are “technicky”. Universities need to make bolder use of variable offers to applicants to reflect their educational and social circumstances (to identify those with the greatest potential). More flexible and accessible pathways need to be opened up through higher education (and further education and workplace learning too).

But the most important steps are changing attitudes about whom higher education is for. Unlike the Americans, we still tend to worry that access and excellence are a zero-sum game. If access is wider, quality may suffer unless we are very careful and take lots of remedial action. That is completely the wrong way round. The biggest threat to quality is unfair access.

The most obvious reason is that we need to use the talents of all our people, not just the fortunate, if we are to compete in the global economy. Scotland’s higher education participation rate may be the highest in the UK but it is dwarfed by the progress made by countries such as South Korea, where 80 per cent and more of school leavers go to university.

For me, there is an even more compelling reason. We are lucky to live in a democracy, for all of its imperfections. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, more and more people were given the vote until we arrived at universal suffrage.

Today having the opportunity to continue your education after school, or come back to it as an adult, should be seen as a right, not a privilege. It is increasingly difficult to meet our responsibilities, and enjoy the fruits of being a citizen in a 21st-century democracy, without fair access to higher education. We need universal suffrage in education too.

The rise of so-called “populism”, the revolt of the “left behind” that supposedly led to the election of Donald Trump and – nearer home – Brexit, is partly the result of tabloid hype and social media frenzy. But there is enough truth in it for us to worry about the consequences of growing inequality.

It is in that context that the Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge that, by the end of the next decade young people should have the same chance of going on to higher education regardless of where they were born and who their parents are, needs to be seen as a re-dedication to ideals of social justice always present but never fully realised in Scotland’s history; and as a commitment to build an inclusive and democratic society for the future.