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.


This is my third Annual Report as Commissioner for Fair Access. Once again it is good to be able to report sustained progress towards meeting the Scottish Government's targets for fair access to universities and colleges - 16 per cent of new entrants to higher education from the 20 per cent most deprived communities in Scotland by 2021 (which has already effectively been achieved), 18 per cent by 2026 of full-time first-degree entrants and 20 per cent of all HE entrants (in effect, a level playing-field) by 2030. It is also good to be able to report how fair access has become embedded in the priorities of institutions in a wider sense rather than being confined to meeting these targets. A focus on fair access now pervades most aspects of higher education. As a result Scotland can justly claim to be the pace-setter among the nations of the United Kingdom in opening up opportunities for higher education to all groups in the community.

Of course, much remains to be done. Even when the overall target has been met, significant variations in access to higher education will remain - in effect, continuing discrimination. Students from more deprived communities, in terms of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), will cluster in the colleges and the so-called 'post-1992' universities and be under-represented in more selective and the most prestigious universities. They will continue to study subjects with lower progression rates to postgraduate study, and after graduation they will be under-represented in high-status professions.

This report is divided into three sections:

  • Progress towards meeting the government's targets and other measures of success in promoting fair access to higher education. Two issues in particular, familiar from my earlier reports, will be considered - the extent to which the use of contextual admissions, and the publication of minimum entry requirements, has begun to make a difference; and the degree to which applicants with other higher education qualifications, principally but not exclusively Higher National Certificates and Diplomas (HNC/Ds), are given advanced standing on degree courses. The continuing debate about the extent to which SIMD should be qualified, or replaced, by other measures of deprivation, will also briefly be discussed, although this was discussed in detail in my last Annual Report. Finally the potentially very serious implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for fair access will be discussed.
  • Access to the professions. Fair access cannot be limited to initial access to higher education. Rather it must be sustained through the student life-cycle in terms of successful continuation and completion rates and equivalence of degree outcomes. No student should be allowed to fail because of a lack of support, academic, pastoral and financial. In the same way graduates from more deprived social backgrounds should have equal access to postgraduate courses, which often provide gateways to the professions, and to the professions themselves. This report focuses, in particular, on law and medicine but also considers more briefly access to the creative professions such as drama and dance, film and TV and music. In all three professions the intake of new entrants remains skewed to those from more socially privileged backgrounds, despite substantial efforts to open them up to wider and more representative social groups.
  • Other forms of deprivation in addition to social class - age (more limited opportunities for part-time and adult education students and lack of financial support); gender (women are under-represented in some key disciplines and over-represented in others); geography (students from more remote and rural areas of Scotland continue to face barriers to access compared with students from big cities in particular); and race and ethnicity where students are clustered in particular types of institutions and subjects. In addition individuals with particular characteristics - such as those who are physically disabled or suffer from poor mental health; the care-experienced; and those estranged from their families - suffer further disadvantages. All these factors - age, gender, geography, race and ethnicity, disability, care experience and family estrangement - interact in ways that compound the core disadvantage produced by socio-economic deprivation. A comprehensive view of fair access must address all these factors.

As in previous years I am grateful to all those in national organisations, universities and professional bodies who spared their valuable time to meet and discuss fair access with me. I am also once again very grateful to Lynn Macmillan, Strategic Lead for Access to Higher Education in the Scottish Government, and her colleagues Lynn Brown and Karen Frew. They have supported my work as Commissioner for Fair Access with exemplary professionalism. Needless to add, the analysis and the recommendations in this report reflect my own independent views as Commissioner. I am also very grateful to Anna Green and Alan Sloan in Analytical Services who have helped me with the statistics in this report. Once again, responsibility for the accuracy of this data, and the interpretation placed on it, is entirely mine.

Peter Scott
Commissioner for Fair Access in Higher Education


Email: karen.frew@gov.scot

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