We are testing a new beta website for gov.scot go to new site

Commission on Widening Access Interim Report


Getting In

In this chapter we:

  • Explain the importance of the school attainment gap in contributing to the present socioeconomic inequalities in higher education.
  • Explore the reasons why such emphasis is placed on school attainment in university admissions.
  • Examine the potential of contextual admissions and articulation pathways to support equal access and explore how their impact can be maximised.
  • Examine the importance of non-educational factors in the admissions process in explaining the present socioeconomic inequalities in higher education.


It is fair to say that, as things stand, the large majority of access programmes focus on expanding the applicant pool by supporting and developing individuals to successfully access places within the context of existing admissions requirements and processes.

But the Commission believes that if Scotland is serious about equal access, then we must also be prepared to switch our focus from perceived deficits in individuals to more fundamental, systemic change. With that in mind, in this chapter we begin to examine whether there are elements of the existing arrangements for the evaluation and selection of applicants that might unintentionally be obstructing or impeding equal access.

The School Attainment Gap: Why It Matters

School attainment is the principal measure used by Scottish higher education institutions to evaluate and select applicants. For this reason, it is the single most important factor in determining whether an applicant will be offered a place at university.

Given this selection model, it follows that the gap in school attainment between pupils in Scotland's most and least deprived communities is one of the most significant reasons for the present inequality.

To illustrate the scale of the challenge, in 2013/14 school leavers from Scotland's 20% least deprived communities were almost three times more likely as those from the 20% most deprived communities to leave school with three Highers.

The effect of this gap is that there is a substantially smaller pool of applicants from deprived backgrounds with the grades necessary to meet current university entry requirements, especially in the most selective institutions.

The Scottish Government has identified closing the school attainment gap as a key priority. Indeed, the First Minister recently described doing so as arguably the single most important objective in the latest Programme for Government.

The Commission strongly endorses this action given the fundamental importance of closing the attainment gap, and recognises the potential contribution these policy interventions could make, if successful, to increasing the applicant pool and achieving equal access. For that reason we intend to follow developments in this area closely and will explore whether it is possible to develop final recommendations which can complement this work, with a view to maximising the impact of closing the attainment gap on supporting equal access.

Next Steps

• The Commission will stay in close contact with those working on school attainment policy and will consider how best colleges and universities can support this work through access programmes and initiatives. We will also consider whether we can develop final recommendations which can maximise the impact of this work on supporting equal access.

School Attainment and Academic Excellence

Given its very prominent role in explaining the present inequalities, it is worth briefly reflecting on why universities place such emphasis on the attainment of school qualifications.

Traditionally, this is explained by the pursuit of academic excellence, the core principle underpinning admissions to Scottish universities. In simple terms, the import of this principle is that the purpose of university admissions is to recruit the brightest and best students. The recruitment process therefore places a premium on achievement in school as the most reliable indicator of academic talent.

Broadly speaking, there is little doubt that this approach is legitimate. Academic excellence is a cornerstone of our higher education sector's success and global reputation. It is also the case that there is a correlation between academic success in school and the degree classifications later achieved at university. It is clear then, that a prominent role for school attainment in the evaluation and selection of applicants is justified.

Why Context Matters as Much as Grades

But that is not where this story ends. There is an increasingly compelling evidence base which shows that pupils who achieve modestly lower grades in more challenging circumstances consistently operate to the same, or an even better, academic standard than their more advantaged, higher attaining peers. This suggests that the applicant pool may be unnecessarily, and unfairly, narrowed by an over reliance on pure attainment, measured in terms of grades, as the primary measure of academic ability.

For example, a study at the University of Bristol showed that over the course of a 3-year degree students from state schools with lower attainment caught up and then academically surpassed their higher attaining peers from private schools.

More recently, research conducted at St Andrews University has found that students from a more challenging school context are more likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than those with identical grades from a school performing above the national average.

These findings are backed by more practical evidence. The Scottish universities who have used contextual indicators to lower entry tariffs for students with lower attainment from disadvantaged backgrounds report little or no evidence of a drop off in academic standards. Indeed, as the case study below shows, St Andrews has proven that, with the right support, it is possible for an attainment gap of up to four grades to be overcome without any detrimental impact on academic standards.

There is also strong international evidence. The Ivy League Universities, amongst the finest in the world, go to extensive lengths to take account of contextual factors, with school attainment forming only one component of a much wider, holistic process for the evaluation and recruitment of the best talent. For example, Ivy League Institutions are more likely to offer a place to an applicant whose grades rank highly in an underperforming school cohort than an applicant who achieved similar or better grades in a more favourable context.

Harvard University also argue strongly that admissions should not be approached as a series of independent judgements. Instead, they deliberately plan socioeconomically diverse student cohorts to enrich the quality of the educational experience for all students. In other words, they believe that wider access is a pre-requisite of academic excellence rather than something which undermines it.

Focussing purely on grades, in isolation from the context in which they are achieved, is an inadequate selection device which fails to identify the best talent. As is repeatedly made clear in the academic literature, it also serves to replicate social inequalities manifesting earlier in the educational journey and can unfairly discriminate against bright applicants from deprived communities.

The Commission observes that the evidence here makes sense. It stands to reason that a pupil who achieves good grades in a more challenging context, without the advantages commonly associated with a more affluent background, might be especially bright and well-motivated. It is therefore not surprising that such individuals flourish when they are placed in a world-class learning environment.

Contextual Admissions

The good news is that this evidence base is already beginning to drive change. Indeed, Scottish universities are at the forefront of both the research and practical application of contextual admissions, with many now routinely taking account of key contextual indicators such as school performance, parental experience of higher education and uptake of free school meals. This process can sometimes lead to a lowering of entry requirements for students from deprived backgrounds.

Being Ambitious, But Realistic

The growing use of contextual admissions is an extremely important development in the journey towards equal access which can only serve to broaden the applicant pool and make the admissions process fairer.

Though contextual admissions can certainly make a significant difference, it is important not to overstate their potential - they are unlikely to be a silver-bullet solution. While a marked gap in school attainment remains, even if entry tariffs were reduced significantly the applicant pool would still be unlikely to be deep enough to secure equality.

However, this caveat does not mean that we should lessen our focus on contextual admissions. On the contrary it makes it all the more important to ensure that their impact is maximised. In this context, we must remember that the use of contextual admissions remains in its infancy and for that reason their impact remains some way short of optimal.

For example, the Commission notes that not all institutions operate a formal contextual admissions policy. Broadly speaking, those who do not often tend to be those with the highest representation of students from deprived backgrounds. This may suggest that contextual admissions are being perceived as a solution for institutions with particularly acute difficulties in recruiting from deprived communities.

While this is certainly an important function of contextual admissions, the evidence is clear that they are also a more accurate way of identifying the best talent. It is therefore worth exploring whether all universities should develop a robust contextual admissions policy. The benefit to equal access is that the participation of students from disadvantaged communities in these institutions would likely grow even stronger, potentially drawing in students who would otherwise be left outside the system.

There is also considerable variance across the sector in terms of both the specific contextual indicators used and in the nature of how these are applied in the recruitment of students. It is true that different institutions operate in different contexts and we would not therefore expect contextual policies to be uniform across the sector. But even accounting for this, it is difficult to imagine that such different approaches can all represent best practice.

A Minimum Entry Threshold?

We also need to understand more about how far contextual policies can feasibly adjust entry requirements without jeopardising academic excellence. This is important because the more entry tariffs can be legitimately adjusted, the wider the applicant pool will become.

The evidence we have encountered suggests that institutions will typically adjust entry tariffs by around one or two grades. However, as we have seen, St Andrews has proven that, with the provision of strong support, it is possible to adjust tariffs by a substantially higher margin without impinging upon academic standards.

Here, we must also take account of the fact that average entry requirements have substantially increased over the last decade or so. Considering this alongside the experience of St Andrews raises the question of whether entry tariffs are truly being set in relation to the academic standards required to successfully complete courses, or whether they are primarily used as a tool for sifting applications in the context of a limited number of places. If the latter is the case, then this may suggest that it is possible to broaden the applicant pool by identifying a minimum entry threshold for disadvantaged students which more accurately reflects the demands of degree programmes.

The Importance of Transparency

The Commission has also noted a lack of evidence on the extent to which contextualised offers are being made on a significant scale. It is therefore difficult to form a clear view of exactly how many disadvantaged students are being admitted through contextual policies and the extent to which we can expect such policies to drive progress.

This relates to a wider theme about transparency. On some institutional websites it is unclear to prospective applicants if and how contextual indicators will be applied to applications, and what the likelihood is that this will result in an offer below the minimum entry requirements. This is important because if prospective students do not understand this they may never apply.

These issues may be explained by the fact that contextual admissions are a controversial issue. We are aware of universities who have been publicly criticised for their use of contextual indicators and this clearly makes it very difficult for them to be open about their use. The Commission is clear that this criticism is unfair and often centres on the misconception that higher grades automatically equal higher talent, irrespective of the circumstances in which those grades were achieved.

But as we have seen, there is clear evidence to suggest that even if there were perfect socioeconomic equality in Scottish higher education, there would remain a compelling argument in favour of contextual admissions as the most accurate way of identifying the brightest and best academic talent.

Transparency over contextual admissions is in everyone's interest. Applicants would have a clearer, and fairer, understanding of their chances of entry. Institutions would benefit from sharing best practice, thereby developing systems which truly identify the best talent. Policymakers would also benefit by having a clearer understanding of the potential of contextual admissions to drive progress on equal access.

Next Steps

The evidence presented in the two previous sections raises important questions about the extent to which universities are fairly evaluating the academic talent of applicants from our most deprived communities.

Areas that we will explore further include:

  • The current volume of students entering higher education through a contextual offer
  • The data and processes being used by different institutions
  • Could better information be made available to students about the options contextualised admissions provide?
  • Is there scope to scale up contextual admissions and share best practice in this area?
  • Can we identify a minimum entry threshold for disadvantaged students which more accurately reflects the demands of courses?

Case Study: St Andrews - Pathways to Physics and Astronomy

Studying Physics and Astronomy at St Andrews has become so popular that the standard asking rates are AAAA (Highers) in order to keep numbers down to the permitted level. The department was concerned that this high asking rate might reduce the number of students from less advantaged backgrounds. St Andrews University routinely uses contextualised data in admissions, but the department recognised that a dedicated entry route could achieve more.

Students from a widening participation background can join standard degree programmes but with a modified (Gateway) entry year, which has a lower asking rate for entry, typically BBBB. Students may apply directly to the Gateway programme, or they may be considered for this entry route from an application to standard programmes. Applicants and their guests are invited to St Andrews to discuss the programme.

In their year of entry these students do about half their credits on traditional modules integrated with the rest of the intake, and about half their time on strongly tutored modules designed for this entry cohort. These modules develop technical and soft skills, and provide wider support for students' study and the transition to university. Success in the Gateway year allows progression to the second year of the standard degree programmes in Physics, Astrophysics, and joint degrees with Mathematics. The early Gateway cohorts are now recent BSc and MPhys graduates, including the first to progress to PhD studies.

The Role of Colleges in Scottish Higher Education

So far this chapter has focussed on students entering university direct from school. But this is not the only route. A distinctive and respected feature of Scottish higher education is the prominent role of colleges in delivering HE programmes[5] and in supporting students into degree level study at university. Illustrating the scale of their contribution, in 2013/14 17% of all Scottish domiciled students studying an HE level programme were enrolled at a college.

The Benefits of Articulation Pathways

Articulation pathways are the most effective and efficient mechanism for supporting this progression between college and university. Typically, articulation pathways involve collaboration between institutions to ensure that course curriculum is closely aligned. This alignment can enable students with an HNC to enter a degree programme in second year and those with an HND to enter in third year.

The benefits are clear. Students get full recognition for prior achievement and a prestigious qualification at the end of each successful year. Universities benefit from students who already have experience of HE level study and who are familiar with the curriculum. The public purse also benefits in that it avoids the cost of learners continuing to study at the same level for a number of years.

Articulation and Equal Access: Replenishing the Applicant Pool

Beyond these significant educational and financial benefits, articulation pathways are also regarded as a powerful mechanism for advancing equal access. This is a theme which came through very strongly in all strands of the evidence so far gathered by the Commission.

This is explained by the fact that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely than their more advantaged counterparts to begin higher education in college rather than university. To illustrate, in 2013/14 nearly 29% of all college students and 22% of HE college students were from Scotland's 20% most deprived communities.

Moreover, in the same year 4,515 students from Scotland's most deprived communities qualified with an HNC or HND. The point here is that colleges have the potential to play a powerful role in replenishing the shallow applicant pool resulting from the school attainment gap. It is clear that this potential can be most effectively exploited through the availability of reliable, well-designed articulation routes from college to university.

Maximising Impact

Overall, articulation is a real success story of Scottish higher education. The total number of students articulating from college to university with either advanced standing (full credit awarded) or advanced progression (partial credit awarded) has increased by 21%, from 3,584 in 2009/10 to 4,321 in 2013/14. Of this number around 25% were from Scotland's 20% most deprived communities.

However, similar to the position with contextual admissions, the full potential of articulation as a tool for widening access is yet to be realised.

For example there is significant variance across the university sector in terms of the extent to which different institutions engage with articulation pathways. As Figure 6 below shows, in some universities, such as the post-92 institutions, articulation pathways are commonplace and represent a key component of their recruitment strategy. In others, most notably the ancient institutions, articulation is much less common.


Numbers of Scottish domiciled students with HN qualifications entering degree programmes at Scottish universities in 2013/14, from SIMD20 only

Category of Institution Progression
(Begin in first year)
Advanced Progression
(Partial credit awarded)
Advanced Standing
(Full credit awarded)
Ancients 91 10 12 113
New universities 197 34 77 309
Post-92s 448 49 791 1288
Specialised HEIs 10 1 8 19
All Scottish HEIs 746 94 888 1729

N.B. Two students could not be categorised. Excludes Open University.
Source: National Articulation Database. SIMD 2009 was used in compiling the National Articulation Database

Moreover, there is significant variance in the level of credit which an HN qualification 'buys' with different universities. Figure 6 shows a clear trend that in the more selective institutions a large majority of those admitted with HN qualifications begin in first year. Effectively this means that these students, despite having already achieved an HE qualification, must start from scratch. In the case of students with an HND, this means remaining at the same level of study for up to a further 2 years. Here, the possible academic and financial duplication is clear.

It is also interesting to note the discrepancy between the strong emphasis placed on the attainment of Highers compared with the seemingly lower value placed on HN qualifications. In many respects this is counter-intuitive given that HNC/Ds are HE qualifications and therefore by definition represent a higher level of study than Highers. This raises a question about whether a rather narrow set of success criteria are dominating university admissions.

This evidence has led some researchers to argue that this two-tiered approach to articulation is contributing to a social stratification of higher education. As things stand, students from deprived backgrounds who enter university through the college appear at a significant disadvantage to those who enter through more traditional routes, especially in terms of the most selective institutions and courses.


Overall, the Commission believes that articulation is an area which would benefit from further discussion. It may be that there are very good reasons why some universities appear to place a lower academic premium on attainment in college. For example, if there are difficulties with aligning curricula in a way that ensures sufficient prior knowledge to enter a degree programme, or if there is evidence which legitimises any concerns over academic standards.

If this is the case then we need to have a clear understanding of what these issues are in order that they can be addressed and the potential of articulation maximised.

Next Steps

Areas we wish to explore further include:

  • The need for robust information on the articulation landscape in Scotland including the pattern of articulation pathways across institutions; the curriculum areas most commonly covered and the level of credit an HNC/D 'buys'.
  • Is there scope to expand the number of articulation agreements and the number of articulation places across institutions?
  • What are the main reasons for the differing patterns of articulation across the sector?
  • Is there scope to bring more uniformity in terms of the credit awarded by universities to students with HE qualifications achieved in colleges?

Articulation Pathways at Robert Gordon University

The partnership between Robert Gordon University and the North East Scotland College provides guaranteed places at university for young people who might not otherwise have gained access to university. Through regional planning over 30 routes into study are supported by the partnership which enables around 400 learners each year to access university having begun their journey at college. All students studying on HNC/D routes at North East Scotland College are eligible to become Associate Students of Robert Gordon University and the guaranteed places scheme enables joint marketing of routes to young people in a way which makes the opportunities available clear and accessible.

Case Study - Scott Christie

After finishing school, Scott studied an HND at Aberdeen College (now the North East Scotland College) which, on completion, allowed him to enter RGU straight into year three. Scott graduated from RGU and was awarded a first-class degree in BSc (Hons) Sport and Exercise Science.

"I didn't have the grades to go straight to university after I left school so I studied an HND in Sports Coaching and was offered a place in third year at RGU. Being able to go to university via college has been life changing and without that opportunity I would not be where I am today."

Scott went on to continue his studies to achieve his aim to become a PE teacher and accepted a place to study for a postgraduate degree in Physical Education at Edinburgh University.

The importance of non-academic factors in admissions

There is little doubt that a combination of closing the school attainment gap, optimising the use of contextual admissions and extending articulation pathways would bring us significantly closer to achieving equality of access. But it would not take us all the way over the line. In fact, even if there were no school attainment gap at all, socioeconomic inequality in higher education would persist.

This conclusion is drawn from a strong body of evidence which shows that even in circumstances where disadvantaged applicants achieve very similar or even identical grades, their more advantaged peers remain significantly more likely to be offered a place.

This phenomenon is primarily explained by the importance of non-academic factors in the admissions process such as the personal statement, interviews, work experience and extra-curricular activities. More particularly, it is explained by the fact that applicants from more advantaged backgrounds are able to draw on financial, educational and parental resources which enable them to more skilfully and successfully prepare for and navigate the admissions process than their more disadvantaged counterparts.

Access to these resources mean that advantaged applicants typically possess a broader range of soft skills such as appearing socially confident, understanding how to draft a quality personal statement and the ability to perform well at interview. Such applicants are able to accumulate these skills in part because they are more likely to benefit from better informed advice and guidance from schools and parents who have experience of higher education and have a good understanding of how to successfully navigate the admissions process.

In addition, more affluent applicants typically list more work and better experience than their less advantaged peers. Moreover, this experience often differs significantly in stature. Applicants from advantaged backgrounds are far more likely to list prestigious placements, unpaid internships and work-shadowing opportunities that are often facilitated by parental networks. Disadvantaged students are of course much less likely to have access to such opportunities, or to be able to afford unpaid roles and are therefore much more likely to list more common experiences such as part-time jobs.

Similarly, there is evidence that applicants from more advantaged backgrounds have a much better understanding of, and access to, the extra-curricular activities which hold the most weight in the admissions process, typically listing activities which signify greater levels of social and cultural capital such as pursuing Duke of Edinburgh awards and playing musical instruments.

Research commissioned by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC) has described these cumulative advantages as the 'little extra something' which more advantaged applicants have over their disadvantaged peers, in addition to higher school attainment.

This evidence raises the question of whether it is fair that activities and experiences which are broadly exclusive to more affluent socioeconomic groups appear to carry such weight in the admissions process. This question is particularly salient when set in the context of the evidence presented throughout this report that it is those from disadvantaged backgrounds who face the most adversity, and who must therefore demonstrate the tenacity to overcome a whole range of barriers on their journey into higher education. There is therefore a strong case that admissions processes should place more equal weight on the significant personal qualities inherent in successfully making that journey.

These considerations lead us to wonder whether the non-academic elements of the admissions process could be adapted in a way that levels the playing field whilst potentially benefiting the social and experiential mix of the institution as a whole. For example this could mean placing more equal value on the diverse range of personal qualities and experiences which different socioeconomic groups bring to the table.

There are examples of exceptional practice in this regard. For precisely the reasons stated above, the Ivy League Universities avoid personal statements which require applicants to list experiences and achievements. Instead applicants prepare a 'diversity statement' in which they are asked to reflect upon how they would contribute to the diversity of the institution and the personal qualities they would add value to the programme of study and their classmates.

In a similar vein, research commissioned by the Sutton Trust has proposed that the playing field could be levelled by limiting applicants to listing only work-related activity and one extra-curricular activity.

Next Steps

Areas we will explore further include:

  • Is it possible to adapt elements of the present admissions system in a way that levels the playing field, for example by giving more value to the diverse qualities and experiences offered by different socioeconomic groups?
  • Is there more that schools and universities can do to support more informed guidance, leading to better quality applications from applicants from deprived communities?
  • Could outreach activity be adapted to facilitate work experience or other development opportunities that would enhance applications to higher education institutions?
  • Is there evidence that shows the benefits of social diversity within an institution on the experiences of all of its members?