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.

Chapter 1

Progress report


The proportion of full-time first-degree entrants from SIMD20 areas increased to 15.9 per cent in 2018-19, compared with 15.6 the year before. It is now just short (0.1 percentage points) of the 16 per cent target for 2021. In normal times there would be a high degree of confidence that this target would be met, and likely exceeded, next year. But these are not normal times. The Covid-19 pandemic, and the measures taken by the Scottish Government and colleges and universities, could have a substantial impact of both the overall level, and shape, of student demand next year (see below).

Amid this uncertainty it is fortunate that such good progress has already been made towards fair access. But it is now more difficult to be fully confident that the 2021 target can still be met, which in turn might bring into question higher education's ability to make the step-change progress needed to meet the next interim target, 18 per cent of full-time first-degree entrants from SIMD20 areas by 2026 and even the final target of 20 per cent of all HE entrants by 2030. During the three years between 2014-15 and 2016-17 the proportion of SIMD20 full-time first-degree entrants did not increase much, ranging between 13.8 and 14 per cent. It was only last year, the first year in which the full impact of the Commission on Widening Access (COWA) could have been felt, that there was a jump to 15.6 per cent. The most recent increase, although very welcome and a testament to the universities' commitment and efforts, was much smaller. These two factors, the unknown implications of COVID-19 and the pattern of past progress towards increasing the proportion of SIMD20 entrants, are the reasons for registering a note of caution.

This impression that further progress towards meeting the next target of 18 per cent of entrants coming from SIMD20 by 2025 may be more difficult to achieve than the - apparent - ease with which the 16 per cent target by 2021 has been met is reinforced by an analysis of the records of individual HEIs suggests that gains have been hard-won and even precarious. The majority of HEIs (12 out of 18) have increased their proportion of SIMD20 between 2017-18 and 2018-19. Some have made substantial advances in this single year. For example, St Andrews has increased its portion of SIMD20 first-degree entrants from 7.5 per cent to 10.6 per cent and Edinburgh from 8.1 per cent to 10.8 per cent. Among the pre-1992 universities Strathclyde (17.4 per cent) and Dundee (16.2 per cent) are the leaders.

But in six HEIs the proportion of SIMD20 first-degree entrants actually fell between 2017-18 and 2018-19, although two of these should be discounted because they already substantially exceeded the
20 per cent (University of the West of Scotland on 28.2 per cent and Glasgow Caledonian on 22.6 per cent). At Aberdeen the proportion fell from 6.0 per cent to 4.4 per cent. The difficulty of using SIMD20 as an indicator of progress in more rural areas, and in particular in the north east, is clearly a factor, but not perhaps the whole story. However, it is worth recording that all institutions, with the exception of the two universities in the north east, Aberdeen and Robert Gordon, have already met the 10 per cent target for institutions by 2021, which is a tribute to their efforts.

There were similar increases in the proportion of SIMD20 entrants in all undergraduate courses (diploma and certificate as well as first-degree courses) in colleges as well as universities - 19.1 per cent in 2018-19 compared with 18.9 per cent the previous year - and all full-time higher education in colleges - 29.2 per cent up from 28.1 per cent.

In contrast the retention rates (completion of the first year and continuation in higher education) fell in 2018-19. For SIMD20 entrants they fell from 89.4 per cent to 86.8 per cent, and for all entrants from 92.5 per cent to 91.1. Retention rates for SIMD20 entrants were 4.3 per cent below average, while rates for SIMD80-100 entrants were 2.7 per cent above average, who of course have a greater effect on the average because they are more numerous. It is worth emphasising that, although it would have been better if retention rates had held steady or even increased, they remain very high. The proportion of SIMD20 full-time first-degree qualifiers in 2018-19 increased from 13.4 the previous year to 13.9, and all SIMD20 undergraduate qualifiers from 18 per cent to 18.5.

Contextual admissions and minimum entry requirements

The publication of minimum entry requirements (MERs) for all courses in Scottish universities is a major achievement, a tribute to the sector's active commitment to fair access. Typically MERs are two grades lower than standard entry requirements, although in some cases the allowance is only one grade. Who is eligible for MERs is also variable, and can be complex to navigate, as individual universities employ a range of different access 'flags'. In only a few cases are those who meet MERs guaranteed places.

The SFC is seeking to monitor the impact of access thresholds through its guidance on its Early Statistics Return, and also through its monitoring of outcome agreements. But it is still too early to gauge what impact MERs will have on increasing the proportion of SIMD20 entrants. The test will come in two or three years when it becomes clearer whether the impressive progress made towards achieving the first interim target (16 per cent in 2021) is matched by equal progress towards meeting the second interim target (18 per cent in 2026). As has already been indicated, the difficulty of maintaining momentum should not be underestimated, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic (see below).

For that reason it is important that the publication of MERs is not seen as the culmination of the universities' efforts on fair access in response to the report of the Commission on Widening Access - job (well) done - but as a platform on which the next stage of advance can be built. It is also important that MERs should not be fixed or final. They need to be constantly reviewed in the light of their effectiveness in increasing the number of successful applicants from socially deprived communities, as well as experience about the capacity of entrants with lower formal entry qualifications to cope with study at university level. Universities should not be afraid to adjust MERs if they are not effective, and/or if it appears to be safe to do so academically.

It may also make sense to develop a common template, or at any rate common protocols, for how universities give high-level information about MERs, although this is not straightforward given the wide range of courses and of access 'flags'. At present there is substantial variation. A 'mystery shopper' on university websites encounters a wide range of approaches. In nearly every case a search for 'minimum entry requirements' produces a large number of results (largely based on the final two words 'entry requirements'). In some cases considerable persistence, and multiple clicks, are needed to find the detailed MERs for particular courses. Sometimes the information available on course pages is limited with clicks back to specific pages on 'widening access' or a 'finder'. Such variations are inevitable, and do not reflect different levels of commitment to fair access. Nevertheless they can be confusing to potential applicants, with limited knowledge of universities, and their families. Even for teachers and careers advisors the variation could be confusing.

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

There is no dispute that a key part of fair access to higher education is increasing the number of applicants from under-represented groups. This is done by improving the information and advice available, by funding a range of targeted initiatives at national and regional level within Scotland and by developing access and bridging programmes (including summer schools) at institutional level. Examples include the Schools for Higher Education Programme (SHEP), the Access to High-Demand Professions (which is particularly relevant to the discussion of access to law and medicine later in this report), the Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP), aimed at adult returners. Other government initiatives are also relevant such as the emerging Adult Learning Strategy and the Leaner Journey 16-24 strategy.

Much of the funding for these initiatives comes from the SFC, which also hosts the two main coordinating bodies - the Access Programmes Steering Group (APSG) and the Bridging Programmes Advisory Group (BPAG). Much of the energy and enthusiasm comes from a comparatively small number of dedicated access practitioners mainly based in institutions. It is vital that this funding is maintained, and that these practitioners are properly supported. It is also essential to support the further development of the Scottish Fair Access Framework established last year to provide an authoritative guide to good practice and also act as a focus for the work of these practitioners. The proliferation of acronyms within what might appear at times to be an overly Byzantine structure should not detract from how central this work is to promoting fair access. Without an adequate infrastructure to support this activism the whole project could falter.

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.


Although commendable progress has been made to fair access by making more contextual offers and setting MERs, much less progress has been made in the context of articulation, i.e. university entrants receiving credit for qualifications they have gained in colleges (into the third year of a degree in the case of Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) and the second year in the case of Higher National Certificate (HNCs) holders).

  • SIMD20 full-time first-degree entrants are twice as likely to come via articulation from colleges having already HNC/Ds - 42 per cent in 2017-18. That is a measure of how important articulation is for achieving fair access. Success on shifting the dial on SIMD20 representation in universities is highly dependent on improved articulation, as it is on the higher rate female participation among SIMD20 residents (see below).
  • But SIMD20 students make up only 25 per cent of those who enter with advanced standing. The shares of articulating entrants with advanced standing from other SIMD quintiles are lower, but not dramatically so. This suggests that SIMD20 entrants do not benefit from being granted advanced standing to the extent that might be expected given their overall share of articulating students.
  • Only half of HNC/D entrants to full-time first-degree courses are granted advanced standing while almost 40 per cent receive no credit at all (and, in effect, have to start all over again). That is the measure of the continuing reluctance of universities properly to recognise credit for college qualifications, which makes the ideal of a tertiary education system with flexible and multiple pathways for students a distant goal.

I have discussed the reasons for this apparent resistance in previous Annual Reports, so I will not repeat them at length. Some are technical and relate to the detailed curriculum fit between HNC/Ds and first degrees, although there seems to be tendency to identify barriers rather than find solutions. Others reflect the tension between seeing HNs as valued qualifications in their own right and emphasised their role as a pathway into degree course. But others again are clearly cultural, and more deeply rooted. It sometimes feels that universities and colleges (even when they make a key contribution to Scotland's overall higher education participation rate, the highest in the UK) are seen as different 'worlds'.

Articulation seems to be a game that many more selective universities (with some notable exceptions) do not to want to play, even those that have been most open to widening participation by means of contextual offers, MERs and imaginative outreach and bridging programmes. The bulk of articulation, especially with advanced standing, is done by post-1992 universities with the University of the West of Scotland in the lead closely followed by Glasgow Caledonian University.

Although the proportion of articulating students with advanced standing (and advanced progression, i.e. partial credit) has increased, it has only crept up. There has been no suggestion of the step-change needed to achieve the 75 per cent target suggested by the SFC. The instruments that have been devised - the National Articulation Forum jointly established by Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland, and the National Articulation Database developed by the SFC (the publication of which has been delayed) - have struggled to make a difference. The NAF has done valuable 'mapping' work and was about to publish its report, which too has been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is difficult to see what further action can be taken to achieve the faster progress needed. One option, of course, would be for hard targets to be set (both nationally and institution-by-institution) and for the SFC to take intensified action through outcome agreements. My instinct is that such action, as well as being resented by universities, would not remove the obstacles to smoother progression. Instead - for the moment - it might be better to place relentless emphasis on raising consciousness - and conscience? - within the sector in the hope that deeply-rooted beliefs and attitudes on the difficulties of articulation (and, more widely, resistance to the idea of a tertiary education system) can be changed.

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.

SIMD and other metrics

One of the most controversial issues with regard to fair access is the reliance on SIMD as the only measure of progress. The arguments are now familiar:

  • in rural and remote communities with scattered and inevitably mixed populations it is an unsatisfactory measure (for example, there are no SIMD20 areas in Shetland);
  • even more populated urban areas' reliance on SIMD produces many false-negatives (socially deprived individuals who live in generally less deprived areas) and false-positives (the reverse), as revealed by the use universities are making of individual measures of deprivation; and
  • to meet targets expressed in terms of SIMD20 universities are forced to compete for a fixed pool of applicants which in the case of high-demand subjects may be very small, while ignoring equally disadvantaged applicants from other areas.

There are principled reasons for continuing to use SIMD as the primary measure of progress towards fair access. It focuses attention of community-based and intergenerational disadvantage (which is reflected in the concept of multiple deprivation). It also discourages universities from approaching fair access in largely meritocratic terms, remedying the social and educational deficits of potential applicants from non-standard student groups, rather than accepting a wider responsibility for ensuring equity, which might require more fundamental changes on their part. These arguments were considered in more detail in my last Annual Report, and will not be repeated here.

There are also practical obstacles to adopting other measures of progress, to complement or replace SIMD. After reviewing possible alternative measures the Access Data Group, with representatives from all stakeholders, concluded that the most suitable to use alongside SIMD was receipt of Free School Meals (FSMs) at any point during secondary education. UCAS had been hoping to ask applicants to self-declare this on their application forms from 2021 onwards, but now plans to do so over a longer timescale. Although self-declaration will be an important step forward, issues of reliability and validity will remain. Also not all those eligible for FSMs actually receive them. One advocacy group and charity, Feeding Britain, estimates that there are about 140,000 children across the UK who are eligible but not registered for FSMs. This suggests that as many as 10,000 children could be missing out in Scotland.

Unless national targets are abandoned and universities are allowed to use their own customised sets of indicators of disadvantage, it seems inevitable that SIMD will have to be retained as the only nationwide measure of progress towards fair access. Despite its acknowledged deficiencies, it is more important to retain the consistent and transparent targets that have enabled Scotland to make such impressive progress towards fair access.

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 should be used alongside SIMD, when issues of verifiability and coverage have been properly addressed.

The challenge of Covid-19

It is too early to assess the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on fair access. However, it is very likely to be negative, although to what degree will be impossible to say for many months and even years. In my view the main areas of concern are:

A. The closure of colleges and universities, and the shift from face-to-face teaching to on-line learning

There are three main adverse effects of the pandemic, and the necessary measures that have been taken:

  • First, the experience of higher education is a social as well as an academic experience. The ability freely to interact with other students and engage in extra-curricular activities is almost as important as attending lectures and seminars. This full student experience is impossible when institutions are closed. Students from more socially deprived backgrounds, who bring less social/cultural capital and are less likely to have established social networks, depend more on this wider campus experience and therefore are likely to be more adversely affected.
  • Second, these students are also likely to suffer from 'digital poverty'. They are more likely to lack up-to-date IT resources and connectivity and adequate home study space, and may have more demanding family commitments. Universities will do all they can to compensate, but it will be difficult to compensate for this disparity in students' own resources. This disparity could lead to worsening retention rates among more socially deprived students.
  • Third, students from socially deprived backgrounds are more likely to depend more on part-time employment during their studies. Many of these jobs, especially in hospitality, will be in short supply for the next few months.

These three factors - restrictions on physical access to colleges and universities, a continuation of online learning and a lack of part-time jobs - could have an even more adverse effect on socially disadvantaged students, if they continue into the next academic year

B. Access and outreach activities

Summer schools and other access activities will inevitably be affected by restrictions on face-to-face meetings and travel during the pandemic. The success of these efforts depend on personal contact and they are often focused on comparatively small groups of potential applicants. They are difficult to reproduce online. Access and participation units within universities will require support to develop creative solutions to the individual contact and personal engagement that is so crucial to the success of applicants from more socially deprived backgrounds who typically lack the support of families, peers and communities. There is clearly a risk that, in the wider shift from face-to-face to online teaching, the needs of inevitably smaller-scale activities like summer schools will receive a lower priority. The success of fair access depends crucially on the work of a relatively small number of passionate activists.

C. University finances and priorities

It is already clear that the Covid-19 pandemic will have a negative impact on university finances; income (especially from fee-paying international students) will fall and costs may rise. The financial strains are already apparent. The SFC has announced its future funding allocations to provide as much stability as possible. The Government has already intervened to provide emergency support to students (which, as has already been said is especially important for students from less socially advantaged backgrounds who depend more on part-time jobs).

There is a risk that in any retrenchment universities are likely to focus on what they regard as their core mission. For colleges and some universities access is part of that core mission, and at the heart of their institutional strategies. For other, more selective, universities, despite their commitment to fair access (and the impressive progress that has been made), it is still a lower priority - especially perhaps at a time when very tough funding choices have to be made. As I have already said, it is vital that access and outreach work continues to be supported at the same level (and that regional access networks continue to be funded on a sustainable basis).

Not surprisingly perhaps given the scale of the financial challenge that universities are facing the issue of charging tuition fees has resurfaced - although so far only in the context of the debate about whether students from the rest of the European Union should continue to have access to free tuition after the UK leaves the EU. But there is a risk this could spill over into a wider debate about the pros and cons of charging fees, even though the position of the Scottish Government (and, as far as it has been measured, public opinion) is very clear. I will not address the wider arguments. But I believe that to resurrect this issue at present would send a very damaging signal in terms of fair access.

D. The cancellation of school examinations

There are three possible areas of concern:

  • Research into the accuracy of predicted A-level grades in England has shown that teachers tend to over-predict the grades likely to be achieved by pupils from more socially advantaged backgrounds and to under-predict those likely to be achieved by pupils from more socially deprived backgrounds. This is less of a problem here in Scotland because more entrants have already achieved some of the Higher grades required for university entry in S5 (although they may be more likely to come from more socially advantaged backgrounds or have attended high-progression schools). But there is a risk that the same may happen if teacher assessments based partly on course work are substituted for examinations.
  • There is also a risk that the moderation of school-based results (necessarily) undertaken by SQA, based on past grade profiles, will 'bake in' differences between schools, which are mainly attributable to levels of performance and aspiration in the communities from which they draw most of their students - in effect, social inequality.
  • An even greater risk that the substitution of teacher assessments for written examinations and SQA moderation at earlier stages in the senior phase, i.e. Nationals, may make it less likely that young people from more deprived backgrounds will end up on the academic trajectory that takes them to higher education.

E. The closure of schools

For all school leavers, but especially perhaps for those from more socially deprived backgrounds, there is a risk of a loss of momentum without the discipline of regular school attendance. Also there will be important differences in the capacity of families to reproduce some of that discipline through forms of 'home schooling'. More deprived families may not have the same access to space at home that can be (at least, semi) dedicated to study, to books, learning materials and IT facilities. Their parents and families may also lack the same level of formal educational attainment and necessary self-confidence to 'substitute' for teachers. Although schools will do what they can to help, their efforts cannot fully compensate for such disadvantages.

F. Future demand and graduate unemployment

The conventional view of the relationship between future student demand and the state of the economy is that in times of recession demand increases. But in the special circumstances created by the pandemic this might not be the case.

The rapid shift from face-to-face teaching to online learning could have an impact on demand. While potential applicants from more socially advantaged groups might be prepared to 'sit out' a year in the hope things will get back to normal in 2021-22, those from more socially deprived communities may be 'lost'. The experience of being a student will be seen as different from, and potentially inferior to, a traditional university experience. Also the very considerable efforts that universities have made in recent years to improve the student experience, which partly depend on the physical presence of students on campus, could be undermined.

This could be compounded if graduates in 2020 face a very different, more difficult and potentially significantly reduced labour market. It is possible that a sharp reduction in the rate-of-return on a university education in terms of future learnings, or even the likelihood of getting a graduate-level job, (or simply the perception of a reduction) will hit student demand.

In the spring and early summer of 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is impossible to know what the medium term impact of such factors might be on fair access. But fair access could be at particular risk, unless active measures are taken to reinforce its central importance by high level political interventions designed to re-emphasise that fair access continues to enjoy the same priority and by safeguarding funding streams for access work at both SFC and institutional level.

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.


Email: karen.frew@gov.scot

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