Fair Access in a Very Unfair Year

By Linda Innes

Jesse Paul has been at the helm of the Fair Access team at RCS since 2017. In that time, the widening access work of RCS has grown exponentially and, in 2020, this team has worked, and made meaningful engagement, with more than 4000 students. Linda Innes spoke to Jesse about the particular challenges this year has posed to Fair Access students and what the future for her team looks like.

Ask Jesse Paul what her goals are for the Fair Access team in 2021 and you will get a very long answer. This small team has massive ambition, driven by their success in reaching the people who are hardest to reach, and achieving hugely positive engagement rates.

2020 saw the second Fair Access care experienced student accepted onto an undergraduate programme at RCS – a real moment of celebration for the team.

“There’s been a seismic shift in understanding what fair access is,” Jesse explains. “Also, we collectively all have better understanding of what the barriers are for our students, so we can improve the ways we support those students into higher education.

Jesse Paul is smiling and has her hands clasped

Jesse Paul

“17.5% of our current Transitions cohort is care experienced or estranged. We know these are the young people who are less likely to progress to higher education, or even stay on at school.

“Our end goal is to help our students achieve a positive destination – whether that is on a degree programme at RCS, at another university, at college or a job. We want our work to have positively impacted on their choices, and their lives.”

The global pandemic brought barriers to so many young people’s educational opportunities. However, Fair Access students may have faced more problems than most, and the impact on students from care experienced, estranged, low-income and BAME households has been massive.

“It’s totally fair to say that we all have Zoom fatigue,” says Jesse (on a Zoom call). “But our students have other challenges that make online learning that bit more difficult. They might not have enough data on their devices, or they might not have devices in the first place.”


“They might live in a place where having your own space, a quiet corner to work or take part in an online lesson is just not possible.”

The Fair Access team have tried to address some of these obstacles, such as buying laptops and data packages for those who need them to complete their studies. But the team is on a mission to go further.

“We want fair access. We work closely with colleagues from Admissions and Student Recruitment, as well as Senior Management, to ensure the contextualised admissions policy is applied when fair access students attend auditions and interviews. This year, most students are auditioning via video. Our students might not be as confident or adept at using technology for a variety of reasons, so we guarantee them an interview. This is crucial to opening up opportunities and making it more of a level playing field than simply going on one pre-recorded video submitted on application.”

For many, the idea of a Fair Access programme is to challenge entry requirements, to provide funding for courses or extra support and mentorship. But Fair Access at RCS looks very different.

“People think we’re a bursary pot… we’re absolutely not. We provide funding for training, but we are so much more than that. I’m very proud of the ways we can respond and react to students’ needs and this year has proved that more than ever. We create programmes for our students and that is exactly what they need and deserve.”

So what does this entail?

“Well, we can be quite inventive,” laughs Jesse, “and do things a little differently.”

“For example, we’d normally take students to the theatre to see live work. Obviously we can’t do this right now, so we commissioned an artist, Nima Séne (an RCS graduate) to create a piece of work for our students.

“Nima made the most beautiful documentary on the importance of your artistic voice, and knowing what you want to say. It was an incredible piece of work and our students responded so well to it. Some students wrote a ‘Meet the Maker’ letter to Nima to share an issue that was important to their artistry, and it demonstrated to me how thoughtful, political and engaged our students are.”

Meet the Maker letter: One Fair Access student’s response to Covid 19 and finding their artistic persona

Performing in the time of Covid-19 is somewhat of a rarity. As of April 2020, artists were pushed out of the spotlight and uncertainty took their place. In such a climate, it is all too easy to become overwhelmed with negativity. But I say nae!

Throughout history there have been many catastrophes and within every single one, voices have arisen.

J. R. R. Tolkien began the writings of his masterpiece “The Lord of The Rings” in the trenches in WW1. Glenn Miller, Vera Lynn, The Ink Spots – all spawned out of the fallout from The Great War. Picasso took inspiration from the Spanish Civil War. It took for Jesus Christ to die for the world’s most practised religion to be formed.

And now we find the same happening. All over the world artists are creating spaces where they can perform: Jazz clubs over the globe have now set up for streaming and anyone, anywhere, can go and see world-class musicians. As Armenia is under attack from Turkey and Azerbaijan, they came together and created a world class concert of performances live on Facebook, of not just music from all genres, but poetry, dance and film – all in the hope of peace.

To express my views on this subject I work, I create, I perform. This is a time of birth, and it’s not talked about enough. Amidst all this chaos, it should really be hope in the spotlight.

Lockdown did not hamper the activity of the department and online projects included a Fair Access Virtual Band, a ‘photomarathon’ project challenging students to take a series of pictures over seven days, a Fair Access Expo for family, caregivers and friends to attend, and a new production project which sees London-based artistic studio three sixty create a bespoke module for Fair Access production students to complete within the confines of their local tiered area.


Another new opportunity involves a partnership between RCS, the Ayr Gaiety and playwright and Royal Literary Fellow at University of Strathclyde Fiona Evans to work with care experienced students to devise monologues which will be performed by professional actors.

“I want to create a community of artists from all over – both within RCS and outside – who want to invest in and support young people from a fair access perspective. ”

“And it works both ways. When artists work with our students they try new things or champion a new process. So what’s happened is that Fair Access has become a hatching ground for new ways of learning and teaching.”

And on that longlist of goals for 2021?

“A new podcast series in collaboration with the Contemporary Performance Practice department, meaningful research into the impact of Fair Access work, new partnerships to engage with artists within communities and, of course, to see more of our students access undergraduate programmes at RCS!”

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