A Blueprint for Fairness: Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access

A Blueprint for Fairness presents a system wide plan to achieve equal access to higher education.

Chapter 2: Embracing New Talent

Much of the work to advance fair access is Scotland is presently focussed on supporting and developing individuals to realise their potential. As we shall explore in detail in Chapter 3, this is a legitimate and important strand of work that can maximise the pool of talent from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education.

We must challenge any perception, however, that fair access is purely a matter of overcoming the perceived deficits in individuals. If Scotland is serious about securing the scale of progress required, then we must also consider more fundamental, systemic change.

In this chapter we return to the key systemic issues flagged in our interim report, such as fairer admissions and more flexible, joined up transitions between sectors, which we believe can be adapted to ensure that Scotland has a higher education system which is as open as possible to embracing this new talent.

Flexible Transitions

Scottish education has evolved significantly over the last decade or so. Through Curriculum for Excellence and the introduction of the Developing the Young Workforce ( DYW) Programme, young people now have access to a far more flexible range of pathways that can be tailored to suit their personal ambitions, abilities and aptitudes.

The full impact of these changes is still unfolding. But it is likely this greater flexibility will result in many young people opting for a more blended approach to learning in the senior phase [2] , for example by undertaking Open University courses in schools or vocational modules delivered in college, moving beyond the traditional model of studying five Highers in fifth year, which continues to form the basis of admissions to many universities.

This shifting landscape makes it all the more critical that systems are joined up: young people who take advantage of wider choices in the senior phase should not be unnecessarily penalised with restricted opportunities to enter university. This will require universities to be more responsive to change and to exhibit greater flexibility in terms of the qualifications and routes that are fully accredited in the admissions process.

There is also clear duplication of provision between schools, colleges and universities in the key transition phases between SCQF levels six and eight. For example, it is possible for learners to operate at SCQF level seven for a full three years before progressing to a higher level of study [3] . Another anomaly is that entry to university is often based on Highers obtained in S5, despite the fact that 98% of 2013/14 school leavers who entered university did so following S6.

It is a strength of the Scottish system, especially in the context of fair access, that learners who need it have the flexibility to benefit from additional time and support to realise their academic potential. However, the above observations raise the question of whether this time and resource is always being used to best effect and whether there are opportunities to use it in a more creative and impactful way to support fairer access.

For example, for some learners it may be possible to make better use of S6 through the delivery of accredited bridging programmes (see next section) to raise aspirations, support improved attainment and facilitate smoother transitions into higher education. We have also seen examples of good practice which suggest that the first year of degree programmes can also be adapted to better support the recruitment and retention of access students, for example through the targeted provision of more intensive academic support and pastoral care.

Recommendation 5: Universities should ensure their admissions processes and entry requirements are based on a strong educational rationale and are not unnecessarily prescriptive, to the detriment of learners who take advantage of the availability of a more flexible range of pathways. This should be monitored by the SFC through the outcome agreement process.

Recommendation 6: The Scottish Government, working with key stakeholders, should ensure the key transitions phases around SCQF levels 6 to 8 are better used to provide students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the qualifications and experiences required to support fair access.

Bridging Programmes

In Chapter 1 we highlighted the challenges presented by the lack of robust evidence on which kinds of access programmes are most effective. However there is one exception to this: there is good evidence of the positive impact made by academically based programmes which enable disadvantaged learners to supplement their attainment by engaging with university curricula. Examples include academically rigorous summer schools, gateway programmes and top-up schemes. For clarity we will refer to programmes of this kind as 'bridging programmes'.

The reason these programmes have such a powerful impact is that they simultaneously address a range of barriers, whilst also providing participants with a clear and realistic pathway to admission. Prospective applicants can familiarise themselves with a university campus and tutors, meet potential classmates and sample the teaching style and academic standards they will be expected to meet. Here, the positive impact on aspiration and the dismantling of cultural barriers is clear. Crucially, participants are also able to showcase their academic ability, in the knowledge that successful completion will result in an offer that is fair and achievable. For their part, institutions, by observing first-hand how participants cope with the academic rigour of the programme can more accurately judge ability, allowing them to more confidently make adjusted offers.

We have also heard evidence from educational professionals that young people who undertake these programmes during their school career return to school significantly more engaged and motivated to achieve the grades necessary to gain admission. This means bridging programmes have the potential to go beyond acting simply as an academic top-up, to facilitate improved school attainment in the first place.

The difficulty is that there are relatively few of these programmes and places are limited on those which do exist. Given the power of bridging programmes to advance fair access, we must ensure there is enough of this provision to make a significant impact at national level and that sufficient places are made available to meet the needs of disadvantaged learners across Scotland. We also see no compelling reason why the academic credit earned through the completion of a bridging programme at one university should not be recognised by institutions across the sector.

Recommendation 7: The Scottish Funding Council, working with professionals, should develop a model of how bridging programmes can be expanded nationally to match need.

  • Given the clear benefits to the learner, the model should ensure that academic credit awarded through the completion of such programmes is transferrable between universities.
  • Successful completion of such programmes may form one of the conditions of the access thresholds to be developed in line with Recommendation 11.
  • This model should have particular regard to the evidence that bridging programmes are especially beneficial when delivered earlier in the education journey.


Articulation pathways, defined as progression from college to university where full credit is awarded for prior learning, is a distinctive and much admired feature of Scottish post-16 education. In our interim report we identified the expansion of articulation pathways as a real success story of Scottish higher education and a powerful means of advancing fair access.

To recap, disadvantaged learners are much more likely than their more affluent peers to begin their higher education in college rather than university. In 2013/14 nearly 29% of all college students and 22% of HE college students were from Scotland's 20% most deprived communities (SIMD20). In the same year, 4,515 students from SIMD20 communities successfully achieved a Higher National [4] qualification. These figures show that colleges provide a crucial alternative route into higher education and can play a powerful role in expanding the limited applicant pool resulting from the school attainment gap. It is clear that this potential can be most effectively exploited through reliable, well-designed articulation pathways.

However, we also identified a number of areas in which the impact of articulation on fair access could be improved. While much progress has been made in recent years, there is currently significant variance across the university sector in terms of the extent to which different institutions engage with articulation: in 2013/14 around 84% of total articulation was delivered by five institutions.

There is also significant variance in terms of the level of credit that is awarded for prior learning. For example, in 2013/14 43% of learners from SIMD20 communities progressing from college to university did not articulate at all in that they were awarded no credit for prior learning. Moreover, there is a clear tendency for more selective institutions to award less credit for prior learning than other parts of the sector, most notably the post-92 institutions. In 2013/14 only around 1% of SIMD20 learners who progressed from college to university with full credit for prior learning entered one of Scotland's four ancient institutions.

Engaging with the sector

In our interim report we committed to working with the sector to understand whether there are legitimate reasons for this variance in approaches. Several of those consulted offered the opinion that the successful expansion of articulation in the post-92 institutions has taken time and was to an extent supported by the SFC's investment of strategic funding. It was suggested that extending this approach to other institutions could support an expansion of articulation across the wider sector.

However, the SFC has advised that this investment was a response, rather than a driver of this expansion and that while this funding was made available to all institutions, it was the post-92s who took most advantage. Moreover, in recent years the SFC has invested in additional places for articulation. While this has increased the number of universities offering articulation pathways, it has not necessarily led to all institutions viewing articulation as a core activity.

Perhaps more substantively, several of those consulted suggested that any hesitancy to engage with articulation may be explained by data held by institutions which suggests that learners who progress from college to more selective institutions withdraw at a higher rate than standard entrants, especially if they are awarded advanced entry.

We have paid careful attention to these concerns: it is in nobody's interest, least of all students', to set people up to fail. But we are also conscious that since articulation is not a core activity in these institutions, they are less likely to have in place the core elements regarded as pre-requisites for successful articulation; such as seamless curricular links, entering as part of a familiar cohort, transitional academic support and targeted pastoral care.

We cannot therefore discount the possibility that any evidence of articulating students withdrawing at a higher rate in these institutions is down to the absence of these core elements rather than any fundamental academic issues. This point is supported by the consistent evidence that those entering university through well-established articulation routes perform just as well as the standard cohort.

Our conclusion

Overall, we believe it is important that all institutions engage strongly with articulation. Most standard routes into university depend upon achieving good results at Higher. To an extent this is true even of contextual admissions and the various academic bridging programmes. But there is a significant cohort of disadvantaged learners who leave school with few, if any, formal qualifications. For these learners, articulation is a crucial alternative route into university.

We therefore see no good reason why Scotland should persist with an essentially stratified higher education system where learners who take longer to realise their potential have access only to a restricted number of institutions and courses. We therefore believe that all universities should be required to engage meaningfully with articulation, building on the numerous examples of best practice already in place across the sector.

Recommendation 8: The SFC should seek more demanding articulation targets from those universities that have not traditionally been significant players in articulation.

  • These targets should have a clear focus on the benefits, both to learners and the public purse, of awarding full credit for prior study.
  • In establishing new articulation pathways, colleges and HEIs should build upon best practice models already in place to secure the curricular alignment necessary to ensure that learners are equipped with the necessary prior learning and academic skills to enable them to succeed in degree level study.
  • For the purposes of more effective IAG, the SFC should develop, or commission, an articulation 'map', setting out all of the available pathways across Scotland.

Monitoring unintended consequences

We are conscious that if selective institutions begin admitting larger volumes of HN students with advanced standing, this may fundamentally alter the profile of applicants, creating much stiffer competition for articulation places. A significant volume of new applicants with higher attainment than one would normally expect could result in disadvantaged learners being squeezed out. Such an outcome is not aligned to the spirit of our recommendation above, and it is plainly undesirable if new articulation routes simply evolve into another mechanism for perpetuating unfairness.

It is therefore important that the expansion of articulation is monitored to ensure it continues to support disadvantaged learners to progress to degree level study.

Recommendation 9: Universities colleges and the SFC should closely monitor the expansion of articulation to ensure it continues to support disadvantaged learners to progress to degree level study. Should this not be the case, a proportion of articulation places should be prioritised for disadvantaged learners.

Encouraging new models

While the present model of articulation has been an undoubted success, it relies upon the development of very close curricular links between specific courses at specific institutions. The consequence for learners is a fairly restricted choice of courses and institutions to which they can progress with their HN qualification. Universities and colleges should therefore be encouraged to explore whether there are more flexible, learner centred models which could facilitate access to a broader range of courses and institutions

Recommendation 10: The Scottish Funding Council, working with HEIs and colleges, should explore more efficient, flexible and learner centred models of articulation which provide learners with the choice of a broader range of institutions and courses.


Over the last decade, a gradual improvement in school attainment has led to increased demand for higher education in the context of a system with a fixed number of places. In order to manage this increased competition, universities have, perhaps understandably, responded by raising entry requirements.

Universities have approached our discussions with them on this issue with candour, acknowledging that this trend has led to a position where many institutions now routinely ask for substantially higher grades than the level of attainment that is necessary to successfully complete degree programmes.

Since disadvantaged learners are much less likely than their more affluent peers to achieve the very high grades often now required to enter university, it is they who have been disadvantaged most by this trend. The increasing use of contextual admissions is in part a mechanism to mitigate this problem.

Contextualising achievement

In our interim report we drew attention to the increasingly compelling evidence that, within a certain range of attainment, disadvantaged learners consistently achieve the same, or even better, degree classifications than their more advantaged peers with higher grades. This suggests that the applicant pool is being unnecessarily, and unfairly, limited by an over reliance on school attainment as the primary measure of academic ability.

Focussing purely on grades, in isolation from the context in which they are achieved, means that universities are often failing to identify and recruit 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 unfairly discriminates against bright applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The evidence here is compelling: a learner who achieves good grades in a significantly more challenging context, without the advantages of a more affluent background, is likely to be especially bright and well-motivated. It is therefore unsurprising that such individuals flourish when placed in world class learning environments.

Access thresholds

The Scottish university sector is responsive to this emerging evidence: many institutions now routinely take account of contextual factors such as school performance, uptake of free school meals [5] and lack of parental experience of HE. In some, but not all, cases this can lead to a modest lowering of entry tariffs.

While this progress is welcome, we believe there is a compelling, evidence based argument for more radical action. Our proposal is for the formal introduction of separate entry requirements for the most disadvantaged learners for degree programmes right across the university sector. Rather than the market rate, these new access thresholds should be based on the minimum academic standard judged necessary to successfully complete a specific degree programme.

Institutions should set access thresholds with genuine ambition: the University of Glasgow's Top-Up programme and St Andrews, Gateway to Physics initiative have already set a benchmark of reducing standard tariffs by between five and seven grades. Crucially, by delivering targeted academic and pastoral support in the initial stages of study, neither has experienced any detrimental impact on academic standards. We therefore see no strong reason why similar, or even more progressive approaches cannot be mainstreamed right across the sector.

It may be argued that access thresholds are unfair and that everyone should be expected to meet the same academic standards. This would only be a good argument if all applicants had the same opportunities to realise their potential. But this is plainly not the case: disadvantaged learners face educational, cultural and systemic barriers which make their journey into higher education much more difficult. It is therefore squarely upon their shoulders that any disadvantage or unfair denial of opportunity rests. Access thresholds will simply help correct this imbalance by creating a more level playing field until such time as fair access is achieved.

Monitoring and regulating access thresholds

Though our intention is to maximise the pool of disadvantaged applicants with a realistic chance of succeeding at university, in the initial phase of change we do not envisage access thresholds operating as an entitlement. There may sometimes be good reasons, unrelated to grades, why an applicant may not be a good fit for a particular course.

That said, with a view to maximising the impact of access thresholds, the SFC should monitor both the level at which these thresholds are set and the number of disadvantaged learners who are offered places. Should the intended outcomes fail to be delivered, Ministers should consider options for creating an entitlement to a place for disadvantaged learners who achieve a certain level of attainment.

We acknowledge that the introduction of access thresholds is a radical step with potentially far-reaching implications. It will therefore also be important for institutions, and the SFC, to monitor their impact to guard against any unintended consequences.

Recommendation 11: By 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. These access thresholds should be separate to standard entrance requirements and set as ambitiously as possible, at a level which accurately reflects the minimum academic standard and subject knowledge necessary to successfully complete a degree programme.

  • The impact of access thresholds and wider contextual admissions policies should be monitored and evaluated by the SFC as part of the outcome agreement process. In particular, the SFC should monitor the extent to which access thresholds differ from standard requirements, the number of applicants receiving adjusted offers and whether the introduction of access thresholds leads to any unintended consequences.
  • Should the access threshold fail to deliver the intended outcomes by the end of 2022, Ministers should consider options for providing disadvantaged learners who meet a certain level of attainment with an entitlement to the offer of a place in a university.
  • The implementation of access thresholds and more robust arrangements for monitoring and evaluation of impact will make an important contribution to the emerging evidence base in this area. Universities should therefore continually refine their contextual admissions policies and, where necessary, access thresholds in line with this evidence.

Recommendation 12: All Universities should be as open and transparent as possible over their use of access thresholds and wider contextual admissions policies. In particular, they should seek to maximise applications from disadvantaged learners by proactively promoting the access thresholds to the relevant schools, pupils, parents, local authorities and teachers.

Admissions and University Rankings

Universities have drawn our attention to another factor that may be influencing the inflation in entry requirements: the fact that average entry tariffs are one of the key criteria determining an institution's placing in several of the most prestigious university rankings.

These rankings are crucial to a university's ability to attract income through research contracts and the recruitment of international students. This creates a strong incentive for institutions to increase entry tariffs: it is a straightforward way of improving their rankings and reaping the associated reputational and financial benefits. The global reputation of Scotland's university sector is a national asset and it is important that it be protected and enhanced. But we are clear that this should not be at the expense of opportunities for disadvantaged learners.

The priority attached to wider access is gaining momentum across the developed world as Governments increasingly recognise the social and economic value of improving social mobility. In this context it appears to be something of an anomaly that socioeconomic diversity should not be a key marker of excellence, especially in light of the evidence, presented in our interim report, that it can enhance the educational experience of all students.

There is therefore a strong argument for making the case to those responsible for compiling these rankings that they should take greater account of this shifting landscape.

Recommendation 13: The Commissioner for Fair Access, should engage with those compiling key university rankings to ensure greater priority is given to socioeconomic diversity within the rankings and to ensure that institutions who take the actions necessary to achieve fair access are not penalised.

Non-Academic Factors

In our interim report we presented UK-wide evidence showing that the emphasis placed by admissions processes on skills and experiences that are broadly exclusive to more affluent socioeconomic groups serves as an additional layer of unfairness for disadvantaged learners. In response, we committed to exploring whether the system could be made fairer by placing more equal value on the diverse range of personal qualities and experiences which different socioeconomic groups offer.

However, we have found a degree of consensus that these issues are perhaps less of a problem in Scotland than is reflected in the UK-wide research. For example, several institutions stated they already have in place procedures which ensure that disadvantaged applicants displaying evidence of having overcome barriers are more likely to be offered a place.

Though this is welcome, we do not wish to be complacent over this issue, especially since the sector itself has acknowledged there is room for improvement. Moreover, the fact that even we have found it difficult to establish a clear picture of the processes used to across the sector suggests the need for significantly more transparency over how applications are assessed.

On balance, our view is that the most prudent course of action is to commission a review of the non-academic elements of the admissions process in Scotland.

Recommendation 14: The SFC should undertake an independent review of the processes - such as personal statements and interviews - that are used to evaluate non-academic factors in applications, with the aim of assessing whether, and to what extent, they unfairly disadvantage access applicants.

  • This review should also consider whether there are other processes or assessment techniques that would increase fairness and more accurately evaluate the potential of applicants. The outcome of the review should be reported to the Commissioner for Fair Access.


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