Fair Access to Higher Education: progress and challenges

Third annual report of the Commissioner for Fair Access in which he assesses the progress and challenges on fair access in Scotland.

Summary and recommendations

Progress report


The interim target that by 2021 16 per cent of full-time first-degree Scottish domiciled entrants to higher education institutions in Scotland should come from the 20 per cent most deprived communities as measured by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) has effectively been met two years early (15.9 per cent in 2018-19). But the rate of progress, a gain of 0.2 percentage points in the most recent year, has been slower than the previous year, when there was a gain of 1.8 percentage points. So there may now be fewer grounds for optimism that the next interim target - 18 per cent of full-time first-degree entrants by 2026 - and the final target -

20 per cent of all HE entrants by 2030 - will be easy to achieve.

Minimum entry requirements

All universities have now developed, and published on their websites, minimum entry requirements (MERs) for applicants from SIMD20 areas and suffering from other forms of disadvantage. This is a significant achievement, although it is too early to assess how much difference this will make to participation rates among socially deprived communities. The visibility of MERs on university websites, and so their impact on application rates, varies. But particularly welcome is the promise that all care-experienced applicants who meet MERs will be guaranteed an offer of an undergraduate place at university.

Recommendation 1

Universities should consider adopting a common template, or common protocols, to present information about MERs on their websites and in any other publications to ensure maximum accessibility and transparency.

Outreach and bridging programmes

Excellent work continues to be undertaken in terms of outreach and bridging programmes, by individual universities, and Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council (SFC) supported regional groups and special initiatives. This work addresses a key issue, the lack of demand from socially disadvantaged young people. It is crucial that such work is properly resourced and sustainable funding is guaranteed, and that the efforts of staff engaged in access work is fully respected.

Recommendation 2

Sustainable funding should be guaranteed for access organisations and new outreach initiatives, and in particular to ensure the further development of the Scottish Framework for Fair Access.


Progress towards allowing Higher National (HN) applicants for first-degree courses suitable credit continues to be slow, despite the work of the National Articulation Forum. Only half receive advanced standing, and a substantial number receive no credit at all (which means they have to start from the beginning). Although the difficulty of matching HN and degree curriculum and learning approaches should not be underestimated, there still seems to be a deep rooted resistance to developing truly open and flexible pathways for learners between colleges and universities within an integrated tertiary education system.

Recommendation 3

The case for an integrated tertiary education system, rather than discrete university and college, higher education and further education, education and training sectors, should be vigorously promoted in Scotland. In particular, there needs to be step-change in the proportion of HN students entering degree courses who are given advanced standing.


The use of SIMD as the measure of progress towards fair access remains controversial. Some of the objections to its use are well founded, although others may reflect a reluctance to accept the legitimacy of standard national rather than customised institutional targets (even if this is not always acknowledged). Although in the medium term it would be desirable to complement SIMD with an individual-level metric, in the short term there is no real alternative to sticking with SIMD. UCAS has delayed including receipt of Free School Meals (FSMs), the obvious candidate, on university applications forms, and there are important issues about the comprehensiveness of existing FSMs data that are unresolved.

Recommendation 4

SIMD for the moment should remain the key measure for assessing progress towards fair access, although universities will continue rightly to use a range of self-chosen access markers. In the medium term FSMs could be used alongside SIMD, when issues of verifiability and coverage have been properly addressed.


The measures that the government, SQA, SFC and individual institutions have taken to address the Covid-19 pandemic, in particular school closures, the cancellation of examinations (and their replacement by teacher assessments) and the shift from face-to-face to online teaching in universities, although inevitable, are likely to have negative consequences for fair access. These measures will exacerbate the existing inequalities between school pupils, potential higher education applicants and students in terms of access to material and financial resources. Vigorous action needs to be taken to prevent any loss of momentum or reduction of focus on fair access.

Recommendation 5

The government should reinforce its commitment to fair access in higher education as a key priority in any assistance programme to help colleges and universities cope with the exceptional challenges - financial, organisational and educational - posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Recommendation 6

In particular the government, the SFC and institutions - and also the SQA, local authorities and schools - need to take active counter-measures to compensate for the negative impacts of school closures, cancellation of examinations and the shift from face-to-face to online teaching in universities as a result of the pandemic.

Access to the professions

Fairer access to the professions, in particular high-status professions, is needed to ensure that they recruit from the widest possible pool of talent (efficiency); to avoid access being over-determined by accidents of birth and family circumstances (social justice); and to ensure professions are as representative as possible of the communities they serve (social cohesion). Professional qualification is the destination of many university courses so unequal access to professions can distort the provision of higher education especially for students from more socially deprived communities.


There are three stages towards qualification as a lawyer (three-and-a-half in the case of advocates) - the academic stage comprising Law Society of Scotland accredited LLBs; the vocational stage, the Diploma in Professional Legal Studies; and the apprenticeship stage, training posts in law firms. Interventions to achieve fairer access can be taken at all three stages.

  • There has been a small increase in the number of students taking accredited law degrees - and also a modest increase in the proportion from SIMD20 communities. But the latter increase is recent, at 13 per cent is still well below the overall 15.9 share of all SIMD20 entrants.
  • There is a further narrowing of the social range at entry to the professional stage, qualifiers from law degrees; the proportion of SIMD20 entrants remains below 10 per cent.
  • The Law Society has made considerable efforts to ensure best practice in choosing trainees, which seems to have ensured there is no further narrowing of the range at the third stage.

However, SIMD20 qualifiers earn £7,200 less than those from the 20% least deprived areas five years after graduation from the LLB and who are in employment.

Recommendation 7

Universities should aim to increase the proportion of SIMD20 entrants to LLBs to match their institutional averages in order to meet the need for a more socially representative legal profession.

Recommendation 8

The Law Society of Scotland should consider introducing a new requirement in its accreditation of LLBs to encourage law departments to take effective action to meet that goal as a core part of the accreditation process.

Recommendation 9

All universities should have agreed targets for increasing SIMD20 entrants to postgraduate and professional courses, to match those for entrants to first-degrees. It is especially important to extend these targets to the Diploma in Professional Legal Studies given the pivotal role played by the legal profession in society.


The pathway to becoming a doctor is different from the pathway to becoming a lawyer. Although also split into three stages - pre-clinical and clinical studies in universities, followed by training posts in the National Health Service (NHS) - non-continuation rates are very low and almost all initial entrants to medical schools are guaranteed jobs in the NHS. Unlike law tuition is free throughout medical education. This means that the only realistic point of intervention to secure fairer access is at initial entry to one of the 5 Scottish medical schools.

Progress towards increasing the number of entrants from the bottom two SIMD quintiles has been steady - from less than 10 per cent to approaching 20 per cent. But the bulk of entrants, and so future doctors, still come from the top two SIMD quintiles. Initiatives have been taken to increase the pool of applicants, through outreach programmes like REACH, pre-med courses at Glasgow and Aberdeen University and to ring fence 50 per year additional places for widening access entrants but the record of medical schools to recruit SIMD20 entrants to fill these places has so far been mixed.

Although the NHS is the major funder of medical education through its funding of clinical placements and postgraduate courses, it appears to have limited leverage. While both the NHS and medical schools share a commitment to fair access, they have different priorities with the former focused on workforce issues and the latter on medicine's general place within university education (and research).

Fair access has to compete with two other policy agendas in medical education - to encourage more newly qualified doctors to make their careers within NHS Scotland (partly by setting new intake targets for Scottish domiciled students); and to encourage more to work as GPs and in less popular specialisms such as mental health. But promoting fair access is likely to contribute to both these other agendas.

Recommendation 10

Medical schools should consider whether the grades discounts currently offered by MERs, (and reduced UCAT scores) are enough to expand the pool of applicants from socially deprived areas. In particular they should consider whether standards can be maintained while relaxing some subject requirements and placing a greater emphasis on people skills and the outcomes most valued by the professions in their admissions processes.

Recommendation 11

A clear focus should be maintained on the recruitment of SIMD20 students until (or unless) those targets are redefined (perhaps to include FSMs). Although other metrics will always be necessary and desirable, they should not be allowed to become an alternative to this primary metric. Success in recruiting SIMD20 students should determine the future allocation of additional widening access places in medical schools.

Recommendation 12

If an additional medical school is established a track record on delivering fair access, and a commitment to accelerate progress towards fair access, should be given as much weight as other criteria such as medical specialities and geographical coverage.

Creative professions

The creative professions - music, drama, dance, TV and cinema - offer a different model. They are not licensed. Only a minority of Higher Education Institution (HEI) entrants come from the two specialist higher education institutions in Scotland, Glasgow School of Art (GSA) and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), with the majority attending other art and design departments or other disciplines or private providers such as Ballet West. There are no clear pathways by means of organised traineeships.

There is a strong perception that, as with law and medicine, most entrants to the creative professions come from more socially privileged backgrounds. This is sometimes attributed to the decline in schools of specialist provision subjects like music. In fact the proportion of SIMD20 entrants to first-degree courses in creative art and design is higher than in the case of either of these other professions - 14 per cent compared with a general average of 15.9 per cent. But there are significant variations - from 19 per cent in drama to 11 per cent in fine art and cinema.

The open nature of the creative professions makes it difficult to identify the best points of intervention to promote fair access. This means that a whole-system approach - from schools through higher education and into the professions - is necessary. Targeted access initiatives are confined to the two specialist higher education institutions. The RCS, with funding from the SFC, has run a successful 'Transitions' programme focused on schools which has led to increases in the bottom two SIMD quintiles.

Recommendation 13

Universities should consider the development of dedicated access pathways into creative art and design degrees by working in close collaboration with arts organisations, including bridging courses and summer schools not only at the pre-application or pre-entry stage but continued in subsequent years of study.

Recommendation 14

Experiments should be encouraged in establishing 'teaching hospital' models of collaboration between universities and specialist higher education institutions and arts organisations combining academic study and professional practice.

Recommendation 15

The SFC should guarantee continuing support for the access work of GSA and the RCS as the key institutions in creative art and design education.

Other forms of disadvantage

While it is right to keep a tight focus on socio-economic disadvantage - social class - in addressing fair access, other forms of disadvantage - age, gender, disability, care-experience and ethnicity - should not be ignored. There is a risk that giving too much weight to these other forms might weaken this focus. But, in practice, in nearly every case there is a strong cross-over between them and social class.


There are two interpretations of the relationship between age and lower participation in higher education. The first emphasises the need for 'second chances' for those who missed out as school leavers; the second emphasises the fact that many adult learners have already benefitted from initial higher education. It is important to distinguish between categories of adult learners and different forms of adult learning.

Full-time first-degree entrants aged 21 and over are substantially more likely to come from SIMD20 communities than younger entrants. But most adults, even from more socially advantaged communities, are relatively disadvantaged because opportunities to enter higher education were more limited when they left school. Redressing this intergenerational inequity by providing more opportunities for adult learning is a valid objective of public policy.

Care experience

Increasing opportunities for the care-experienced to enter higher education enjoys a high political profile - rightly so, not least because unlike most other forms of disadvantage it is not a protected characteristic in legal terms.

Participation in further and higher education by the care-experienced is only about half of that for the general population. There is a substantial overlap between care experience and residence in an SIMD20 area.

Although the care-experienced make up only one per cent of full-time first-degree entrants, this represents a substantial increase over previous years. The SFC's 'national ambition' that by 2020 they should have the same opportunities as their peers, which would suggest a share of at least two per cent.


Disabled students are clearly under-represented in universities, having already been disadvantaged in school. There is a wide range of different types of disability ranging from physical impairments through autism specific learning difficulties and mental health conditions. Only a quarter of students who identify themselves as being disabled receive Disability Students' Allowance (DSA).

The fastest growing group of disabled students is those with a mental health condition. As a result, addressing mental health has become a major priority for universities. An increasing number of students are at some stage in their higher education.


So far ethnicity has not been a major focus of efforts to address disadvantage in Scottish higher education. Over 90 per cent of students are white, compared with 70 per cent in England. However, this is likely to become a more significant concern in future.

There is a significant crossover between ethnicity and social class in terms of disadvantage. (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) BAME students are more likely to come from socially deprived communities. More than a quarter of BAME students in universities come from SIMD20 areas compared with 14.9 per cent of white students.


Female students are in a substantial majority in higher education, and have been so for more than a generation. The current gap is 18 percentage points. However, this does not mean they do not suffer disadvantage compared with men.

Male students are still the majority in the most socially advantaged social groups. Progress towards increasing the share of SIMD20 entrants is disproportionately due to higher female participation (16.9 per cent among women compared with 14.3 per cent among men). Female students have higher retention rates than male students while they are at university. But this is not reflected in higher proportions graduating with 'good degrees. There continue to be very substantial gender imbalance among academic subjects.

Recommendation 16

Action plans to address other forms of disadvantage - age, care-experience, ethnicity, disability and gender - should be coordinated with the wider drive towards fair access defined in terms of socio-economic status, rather than being treated as standalone agendas.


Email: karen.frew@gov.scot

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