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 2

Access to the professions

There are three main arguments for promoting fair access to the professions. The first concerns efficiency; the second social justice; and the third social cohesion.

  • Professions, especially the licensed professions, are organised on the basis of delivering the best possible service to their various publics. Entry and practice standards are regulated to achieve that goal. In the case of doctors and other registered health and social care practitioners, and of engineers and other scientific and technical professions a key consideration is public safety. Even in the case of the more open professions, the objective is the same - to deliver excellence. As a result it is essential that professions recruit the most talented and most appropriate from the widest possible social pool rather than restricting access to those from more privileged social backgrounds if they wish to maintain the highest possible standards. This is the efficiency argument for fair access to the professions.
  • Professional standing generally confers significant advantages - in terms of both social status and financial rewards. It is no longer acceptable in a 21st-century democracy that access to these advantages is determined by the accident of birth and the unequal distribution of life-chances in childhood and adolescence (in particular, school experience). Also professional standing is the natural culmination of many courses in higher education. So, if access to that standing (particularly in high-status professions such as medicine and law) is made more difficult for those from more socially deprived backgrounds, their experience of higher education - even for those fortunate enough to secure access in the first place - is likely to be diminished compared to the experience of their more advantaged peers. Their opportunities, and therefore ambitions, will be curtailed. This is the social justice argument for fair access to the professions.
  • In a 21st-century democracy it is equally important that members of the general public when they encounter members of the professions are able to interact with their 'peers' rather than a 'caste' composed predominantly of the socially privileged. This is especially necessary in the case of professions such as law or social work where in the past it has sometimes appeared that different social worlds are colliding with the 'clients' coming from one, more socially deprived world and the professionals coming from another, more privileged, world. Similar arguments apply to medicine where diagnosis and treatment may even be compromised if social interactions are inhibited. More generally, the myriad encounters between citizens and the state, in both its political and corporate forms, should be on approximately equal terms. This is the social cohesion argument for fair access to the professions.

This report focuses on access to law and medicine, among the oldest and still most prestigious professions. It also discusses, in less detail, the creative professions such as drama and music. These professions have been chosen because all three predominantly recruit, or are perceived to recruit, from more privileged social groups. Yet they are markedly different, ranging from tightly prescribed pathways (medicine) to more fragmented pathways (law) to largely self-determined pathways (creative professions).

Medicine is not only a regulated profession but, to a very high degree, operates in a public setting, the National Health Service. Medical students are trained in publicly funded institutions, universities, and are not charged fees. On graduation and qualification the great majority are employed within the NHS. Non-completion rates are very low. Almost all students admitted to medical schools qualify as doctors and in addition are guaranteed jobs in the NHS.

The law is different. Law students also study in publicly funded universities. But they only receive free tuition for the first, academic part of their studies. They must pay tuition fees for the professional stage of their higher education, and qualification depends on successful completion of a traineeship in a law firm. Law firms are commercial organisations operating in the market place and range in scale from the international to the local. Qualified lawyers who wish to become advocates face a further hurdle. Inevitably there is attrition at each transition - from academic to professional courses, and from professional courses to traineeships - not all of which is voluntary.

Entry to the creative professions is different again. Some future practitioners study in specialist arts institutions - the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Glasgow School of Art - or in performing arts Schools and Departments in other universities (for example, Edinburgh School of Art which is part of the University of Edinburgh). But others come from a wide range of other backgrounds - other university disciplines, courses in further education or (in a few cases) without any formal educational preparation beyond school. A number of internships in arts organisations are available, but not on an organised basis. Many actors, musicians and other creative artists pursue portfolio careers, often as freelances because of the lack of availability of salaried positions. For some teaching in schools is a preferred career; for others it offers a default role.

These three examples demonstrate the complexity of the professional world beyond higher education. As a result generalisations about fair access to the professions are almost impossible to make. Law, medicine and the creative professions have not been chosen as exemplars of professions as a whole. They are not the largest professions. Education and other healthcare professions have more practitioners. But what law and, in particular, medicine have in common is that, as already been stated, they are perceived to recruit predominantly among the socially more advantaged - unlike education (where any concern relates more to gender balance) and healthcare. Some of the creative professions share this characteristic with law and medicine. But, in addition, they share more open and fluid features characteristic of many emerging 21st-century professions.


There are three stages in progression to becoming a qualified lawyer.

Academic stage

The first is the academic stage. Ten universities are accredited by the Law Society of Scotland to offer Bachelor in Law (LLB) degrees that qualify graduates to go on the next stage of legal training. In 2018-19, a total of 1,135 Scottish domiciled students were enrolled on these courses, of which a small number (100) were on 'accelerated' full-time courses designed for students who already have degrees in other subjects. In addition there are BA Law degrees at the University of the West of Scotland, Stirling and Strathclyde which are not recognised by the Law Society of Scotland as leading to qualification. There are also students on courses in legal studies, criminology and accounting with law which also do not lead to qualification. Finally the Open University's law degree is not a qualifying degree.

Counting all degrees, whether qualifying or not, in Scottish universities and all applicants (not simply Scottish domiciled, the number of UCAS main scheme applications has increased from 8,840 in 2015 to 11,405 in 2019 (29 per cent). Over the same period, the number of acceptances has increased from 1,525 to 1,890 (24 per cent). The number of Scottish domiciled entrants to
full-time qualifying degrees has increased at a slower rate, 15 per cent, from 990 to 1135. It is difficult to accurately assess the degree of competition for law. But, on the basis that each applicant has five choices, there appears to be a broad equivalence between the number of applications and acceptances for all law degrees, qualifying or not, although this does not take
into account the level of offers made by universities.

Between 2015-16 and 2018-19, the proportion of entrants to qualifying law degrees from SIMD20 areas increased from 110 (11 per cent) to 145 (13 per cent). Most of the growth occurred in the last two years, which suggests that the overall drive to increase the share of SIMD20 entrants has had a significant impact on access to law. The proportion of entrants from the least deprived SIMD quintile has fallen from a peak of 39 per cent in 2016-17 to 33 per cent in 2018-19. The gap between qualifiers from different social groups on accredited law degrees is even more striking, although it has also narrowed. Over the same five-year period, the proportion of qualifiers from SIMD20 areas crept up from 7 per cent to 9 per cent, while the proportion of qualifiers from SIMD80 areas fell from 43 per cent to 38 per cent. This means that almost 4 out of 10 of those who qualify from accredited law degrees come from the 20 per cent least deprived social groups. This disparity is compounded by differentials in earnings among Scottish domiciled qualifiers after five years of sustained employment. Although the median earnings for all qualifiers are £30,700, qualifiers from SIMD20 areas earn £5,700 less than the average and £7,200 less than SIMD80 qualifiers.

Professional diploma

The second stage is provided by the Diploma of Professional Legal Practice. There is a key difference between the first and second stages; LLB students receive free tuition, while diploma students are charged substantial fees of up to £9000. Although limited funding is available, the possibility exists that potential students from more socially deprived backgrounds may be discouraged from proceeding to this second stage. In fact there is limited evidence that this is happening - despite the disparity in earnings between law graduates. Robert Gordon University is developing an online version of the diploma to enhance its accessibility.

In 2018-19, there were 630 Scottish domiciled students enrolled on the diploma in Scottish universities - compared with 870 qualifiers from accredited law degrees in 2017-18. This suggests that 28 per cent of those who have successfully completed the academic stage do not proceed to the professional diploma stage. Some entrants to the diploma may have had a gap after completing their LLBs in earlier years and a few may come from the rest of the UK, although this is unlikely to change the broad picture. Counter-intuitively perhaps this 'wastage' appears to be lower than average among SIMD20 qualifiers, although the numbers are low.

During the last four years, the total number of students on the professional diploma has tended to decline – from 680 in 2015-18 to 630 in 2018-19 (although this is recovery from a trough of 595 the previous year). The figures for the current year, 2019-20, have also registered a significant increase. The number of diploma places is linked to the availability of training posts, the next stage in the journey to becoming a qualified lawyer. The working assumption that the 'steady-state' output from diploma courses should be more than 600. There is no evidence that at the professional diploma stage there is any greater disparity between entrants from SIMD20 and SIMD80 areas. Since 2015-16, the proportion of SIMD20 entrants has increased from 6 to 9 per cent, while the proportion of SIMD80 entrants has remained almost constant at 40 per cent.

Training posts

The third stage is for graduates of the diploma to secure training posts. Their availability is determined by law firms, and so is affected by business cycles (and changes in legislation, legal practices and so the demand for lawyers). In a typical year there are about 550 training posts available, which broadly matches the output from diploma courses. Any 'wastage' between the number of those who successfully complete the diploma and of available training posts, therefore, appears to be limited by what might be expected from changes of personal circumstances and career choices, and is lower than between law degree graduates and diploma entrants. There is no information available about whether the limited 'wastage' that does occur is higher among students from more deprived social backgrounds.

The main agent for promoting fair access at this stage is the Law Society of Scotland. It has taken action in four main areas:

  • First, it has recommended that trainee solicitors should be paid at least the living wage. As a result the average salary for a trainee solicitor in Scotland is higher than in England, even if
    well-paid training posts in City (of London) law firms are included.
  • Secondly, it has encouraged best practice in recruitment, to counteract the traditional tendency for partners in law firms to prefer applicants known to them (or their business associates). The Law Society now expects any internships to be remunerated at the level of the living wage, to make them more widely available. It has also encouraged the use of more professional, and more objective, selection procedures, such as extended interviews.
  • Thirdly, the Law Society has encouraged the development of more systematic support and mentoring schemes. In addition to careers visits to schools and other career and outreach activities in 2017 and 2019, it hosted summer school, a week-long programme for S5/6 students considering careers in law. Linked to summer schools is Street Law, a six to eight-week programme delivered by law students in schools. 180 'street lawyers' have been trained over the past four years.
  • Finally, it has established the Lawscot Foundation, funded by the Law Society and law firms, to help academically talented students from less socially advantaged backgrounds. The number of applicants for financial support increased from 41 in 2017 to 60 in 2018. Seventeen applicants received grants - of which 15 were first-in-family to go to university, 12 had received free school meals and seven were from SIMD20 areas.


For a small number of lawyers who aim to become advocates, there is a fourth stage in the pathway to the profession. The Scottish Bar is a small profession of about 700 advocates, approximately 500 of whom are practising. With very few exceptions the standard route to the Bar is initial qualification and typically some years of experience as a solicitor - in contrast to England most of those aiming to be barristers follow a separate route after taking their LLBs. However, there are small additional requirements to qualify as an advocates. The Faculty of Advocates requires trainee advocates to have taken courses in Roman Law and Arbitration in the LLB and also court procedures in the diploma. The main requirement is to undertake additional training in the form of 'devilling' which is organised by the Faculty.

The Faculty recognises that it is important to promote better social representation of the wider community - in terms of gender, ethnicity and in particular social background. This is seen as especially important in the criminal Bar. However, because of its lack of resources and the small scale of the profession, it has limited leverage. Among its initiatives have been a summer school and more organised forms of work experience, including a mini-'devilling' scheme that will start this year. The Faculty also oversees three annual scholarships - a single Lord Reid scholarship, which is awarded strictly on academic merit; one or two Faculty scholarships that take into account other factors apart from academic merit; and up to five Lord Hope scholarships, which are mainly awarded on the basis of social factors. The number of 'devilling' posts has also been increased from the usual number of 12-15 to 26.

Discussion and recommendations

There are opportunities to intervene to promote fair access at all three stages - to LLBs, to the professional diploma and to training posts.

At the first stage more equitable access to LLBs is part of universities' wider approach to fair access, the use of contextual admissions and minimum entry thresholds and of bridging programmes, summer schools and other outreach activities to meet institutional targets. In the case of law intensified efforts will be required. While SIMD20 entrants make up 16 per cent of all entrants, their share of LLB places is only 13 per cent. The lower percentage of SIMD20 qualifiers from accredited law degrees - see below - is significantly lower, which suggests the need for further explanation. There is a case for the Law Society of Scotland including tougher fair access requirements when it accredits LLBs.

At the second stage entry to the professional diploma the percentage of SIMD20 entrants is even lower - just 9 per cent. However, as has been pointed out, this matches the percentage of SIMD20 qualifiers from LLBs. This suggests that significant additional discrimination against entrants from deprived social areas is not occurring at the point of transition from the academic to the professional stages. The government's current targets on fair access currently apply only to first-degrees. I have argued in an earlier discussion document on postgraduate education (https://www.gov.scot/publications/commissioner-fair-access-discussion-paper-access-postgraduate-study-representation-destinations/) that it would not necessarily be appropriate to extend national targets to higher degrees and professional diplomas. But it is important that universities monitor and set their own targets for fair access beyond first degrees, especially in the case of professional courses leading to qualification in key professions like law.

At the third stage, training posts in law firms (and, later in the case of advocates, 'devilling' positions at the Bar), responsibility for taking action to promote fairer access rests with the professional bodies, in particular the Law Society of Scotland but also the Faculty of Advocates, not with the government or universities. Their commitment to fair access not only determines access to the legal profession through accreditation and regulation but, as important, sets the 'tone' with regard to fair access through their example. Both the Law Society and, within its more limited resources, the Faculty have demonstrated that commitment. Apparently small-scale interventions - scholarships, summer schools and the rest - send a powerful signal about the importance of fair access which resonate back through postgraduate and undergraduate law courses, and to schools and families. For that reason there is a strong case for the more effective coordination of access interventions by university law departments (within the wider setting of university-wide interventions) and the professional bodies.

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.



Like law, the journey to qualification as a doctor has three phases - pre-clinical and then clinical studies in a university and healthcare setting (typically a hospital), followed by a period of training as a house officer in a hospital before registration. Qualified doctors then take a number of further examinations to pursue different specialisms and to become eligible for promotion to senior posts. However, unlike law, it is a tightly integrated process. Pre-clinical and clinical phases of university-based training, in effect, constitute a single pathway - although one Scottish university, St Andrews, only provides pre-clinical medicine with students continuing their clinical studies at the four other Scottish medical schools or in England (Manchester or Queen Mary University in London). Non-completion rates are very low, and training posts are available in the National Health Service which is, in effect, the monopoly employers of doctors.

As a result the only realistic point at which efforts to promote fair access can be effective are at entry to pre-clinical studies. This means that the degree to which contextual admissions and minimum entry requirements increase the number of SIMD20 entrants to medicine is even more crucial than in the case of law. It also means that extra efforts to widen the pool of applicants are required, whether by intensifying outreach activities and developing more bridging programmes but also by examining the extent to which academic qualifications in particular subjects are really essential to developing the qualities needed in a good doctor. Not every secondary school can offer an Advanced Higher, or even a Higher, course in chemistry. The General Medical School, which accredits medical degrees but does not have a direct role in selection, is clear that people skills are just as important as academic knowledge, while still stressing the need to raise aspirations and guide subject choices in schools.

Another feature of medical education is that funding is divided between the SFC / universities and NHS Education for Scotland, which contributes more than £80 million for clinical placements and pays for the whole of postgraduate medical training. This means that the 'profession' (or employer) - the NHS - is the majority funder of medical education, which is very different from legal education where the 'profession' (whether professional bodies or individual law firms) makes a much more modest, although still vital, contribution. Although both funders of medical education are equally committed to widening access to medicine, they have different perspectives - the SFC and universities view medical education in the wider context of university education and NHS Education for Scotland views it through the lens of training the future workforce. For example, the NHS argues that half of qualified doctors need to become GPs, while according to surveys of future career intentions among medical students this is the choice of less than third.

Medical students

The number of applications for pre-clinical courses in Scottish universities has apparently remained broadly stable over the past five years - 'apparently' because in 2017 some applications were classified as 'others in medicine and dentistry'. In 2019 the total was 9,200. Over the same period, the number of accepted applicants increased from 980 to 1,155 (and the same reclassification took place so again the figures are not strictly comparable). Each applicant is allowed four choices, but it is impossible to calculate how many applicants (as opposed to applications) there are for each place in Scottish medical schools because these figures are for all applications, not simply those from Scottish domiciled students and because some of the choices will be for places in medical schools in the rest of the UK. But a rough calculation suggests there are fewer than two applicants for each place - a high degree of competition but not perhaps as high as is sometimes supposed.

The number of Scottish domiciled entrants to pre-clinical medicine increased from 485 in 2015-16 to 575 in 2018-19. The proportion from SIMD20 areas increased from just 15 (3 per cent) to 75 (13 per cent). Unless there is a marked change in non-completion rates this impressive increase is likely to be matched in time in a similar increase in the proportion of qualifiers from clinical medicine courses, where the share of SIMD20 graduates was still only 4 per cent.

Typically the minimum entry requirements for widening access applicants to medical schools are AAABB rather than AAAAB for examination grades, and a 10 per cent lower threshold on the University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT) which assesses wider skills. Widening access applicants are normally defined as living in an SIMD20 postcode, have care experience or are estranged from their families. Other factors are taken into account such as successful completion of a
top-up programme or summer school, although eligibility for MERs is sometimes confined to the more tightly defined group of applicants. Welcome and significant progress has been made, although entrants to medical schools still come predominantly from the top two SIMD quintiles. For example, at the University of Edinburgh SIMD40 entrants have increased from less than 10 per cent in 2017 to 17 per cent in 2019. At the University of Glasgow the proportion of SIMD applicants increased from 11.3 per cent in the five-year period 2007-11 to 20.3 per cent in the subsequent six-year period (2012-18).

Widening access

A number of initiatives and interventions have been designed to promote fair access to medicine. Some seek to expand the pool of applicants. The most significant is Reach Scotland, a national programme to provide information, advice and guidance on admissions to high-demand professional subjects including medicine (and law) which focuses on S4-6 pupils from SIMD40 areas in target schools. All the medical schools participate in Reach which has had a significant impact. Before the programme was established less than 10 per cent of entrants were from SIMD40 areas, and by 2018 it had almost doubled.

Others have more direct interventions. Within the 22-per cent increase in the total number of places for medical students (190 places) since 2016, 50 have been ring-fenced for widening access entrants in addition to the 55 places for the Scottish Graduate Entry programme jointly offered by Dundee and St Andrews and 60 places designed to produce greater exposure to general practitioner medicine.

The success of Scotland's five medical schools in recruiting SIMD20 entrants to fill the widening access places has been mixed. Although all have been able to fill the additional widening access places according to the wider criteria reported to the Scottish Funding Council, two - Edinburgh and St Andrews - did not fill them with SIMD20 entrants. The SFC has been discussing with universities whether existing criteria should be tightened. It has also been suggested that widening access places should be redistributed to those universities that have been most successful in filling them.

Starting this year, 2020-21, the University of Edinburgh will offer 25 additional places for a new course designed to allow other healthcare professionals with appropriate experience to study for medicine combining part-time study with their existing jobs. Although not directly aimed to widen participation to medicine, the new course is likely to have that effect because most healthcare courses recruit students from a much wider social base than medicine. Finally, the government has funded two pre-medical entry courses for Scottish domiciled students from socially deprived social backgrounds or remote and rural communities, initially at Glasgow and now at Glasgow and St Andrews. The Glasgow course, in particular, has been very successful.

Other outcomes

Widening access, of course, is not the only goal set by the SFC in its list of outcomes for medical education. Other outcomes are retaining more Scottish medical school graduates in Scotland working for the NHS, increasing the number of Scottish domiciled entrants to medicine, encouraging more newly qualified doctors to enter GP practice and other shortage specialities and to simplify and clarify the admissions process across medical schools. However, a more socially representative body of young doctors is assumed - and likely - to be the outcome of pursuing these other goals alongside targeted initiatives to widen access.

In 2019-20, for each of the five medical schools the government, in addition to overall core intake numbers, a minimum number of Scottish domiciled entrants has been set. For example, at the University of Glasgow, the largest medical school, 164 of the 210 entrants are now expected to be from Scotland. The effect will be over the next three years to replace 100 students from the rest of the UK with 100 more students from Scotland (and the rest of the European Union). As has already been indicated; the goal is to retain more medical students in Scotland. Six months after graduation more than four out of five Scottish domiciled graduates in 2016-17 were working for the NHS Scotland, although it is worth noting that more than half of graduates domiciled in the rest of the UK were also working for NHS Scotland. As only 17 per cent of Scottish domiciled graduates were working in the NHS in other parts of the UK, there is a significant net inflow into the medical workforce in Scotland.

A new medical school?

No new medical schools have been established in Scotland in contrast to England where several new medical schools, several based on collaborations between pre-1992 and post-1992 universities or solely in post-1992 universities, have been established. It has been argued that the involvement of post-1992 universities, which have a much stronger general focus on widening access, has stimulated new and more flexible approaches to admissions. The increased population in England, of course, has expanded the pool of clinical placements which has provided head room for expansion.

However, the government is now actively considering the creation of a new medical school in Scotland, rather than distributing any additional places across the existing schools (subject to whatever conditions the government might impose). One possibility is that St Andrews should be upgraded to a full medical school with both pre-clinical and clinical courses, which might reduce the outflow of students to Manchester and London (although most of these are likely to be English-domiciled students). The university is also developing an innovative model of clinical studies with clinical placements in GP hubs and other primary care settings rather than hospitals. To achieve this, the GMC would have accredit medical degrees at St Andrews. This option would not address the geographical imbalance of Scottish medical schools with four in the east and only one in the west, where the bulk of the population lives (including the largest concentration of SIMD20 areas).

Other proposals have been outlined - for example, collaborations between the University of Aberdeen and the University of the Highlands and Islands or the University of Glasgow with the University of the West of Scotland to address the need for doctors in remote and rural areas - the Highlands and Islands and the Borders (although the University of Edinburgh argues that it is already focused on the latter region) respectively. The main considerations in reaching a final decision are likely to be those set out in the SFC's outcomes for medical education - retention of medical graduates in Scotland, a greater focus on primary care and less popular specialities and meeting the needs of remote and rural areas. However, there are implications for fair access, not least the impact of the development of more innovative medical education on attitudes to the qualities needed to be a good doctor and the need for wider social representation in the profession.

Discussion and recommendations

Despite very substantial efforts by medical schools, fair access to medicine is still a long way from being achieved. As the only effective point of intervention is at the point of initial entry to
pre-clinical medicine, the comparative lack of fair access to medicine will continue to feed through into the limited representation of non-advantaged social groups within the medical profession. Even with a substantial uplift in recruitment from these groups into medical schools this will continue to be the case for many years.

The proportion of SIMD20 entrants to medicine lags behind the proportion of SIMD20 entrants to all first-degrees in the university as a whole. Several explanations have been offered:

  • an inadequate pool of suitably qualified SIMD20 school leavers (even when MERs have been taken into account);
  • lack of aspiration among many pupils from more socially deprived backgrounds;
  • inadequacy of SIMD20 as a metric for determining progress towards fair access (which is why most medical schools use SIMD40 and other 'flags' indicating comparative disadvantage as well);
  • rigidity of entry requirements set by medical schools in terms both of grades (even with adjusted offers) and subjects;
  • the higher degree of autonomy that medical schools typically enjoy within universities than most other departments;
  • the NHS's lack of leverage despite the fact it is the majority funder of medical education, even at the undergraduate level; and
  • competing agendas to give a greater priority to GP practice and less popular specialities and to address the needs of rural and remote communities, although there is substantial synergy between fair access and these other agendas.

All, to different extent, are true. Certainly there can be little doubt about the commitment of medical schools to fair access, although within the context of what they believe to be possible and appropriate.

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 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 specialties and geographical coverage.

Creative professions


The creative professions: theatre, film, dance, fine art and the rest - are quite different from law and medicine. They are not regulated or licensed professions. There are no professional bodies, although there are examining bodies, organisations that offer kite marks and attempt to disseminate good practice and also practitioner and learned societies in some of these fields. There are no agreed pathways into the creative professions, although the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) plays a pivotal role in training professional actors, film makers, dancers and musicians. The Glasgow School of Art (GSA) plays a similar role in fine art, although several formerly independent art schools have been incorporated into universities such as Abertay, Edinburgh and Robert Gordon. Architecture, which is not covered in this report, is an exception because degree courses are accredited.

Many future members of the creative professions have studied other subjects, mainly humanities, in universities; and some have no degrees at all. Similarly not all graduates of the RCS, GSA and art and design departments in universities go on to pursue careers in the professional fields indicated by the subjects they have studied; many become school teachers, although they may combine teaching with creative practice. This variety of routes into these professions, and the almost complete lack of licensing of practitioners, makes it difficult to define, let alone match, supply and demand, although a Creative Industries Action Group has been established.

Despite these differences many of the creative professions share a common characteristic with law and medicine, the over-representation of the more socially advantaged and corresponding
under-representation of the socially deprived among professional practitioners. The statistics support this conclusion although the over-representation of entrants from more socially advantaged groups is much less pronounced than in medicine, and less pronounced than in law.

Student number trends

Overall applications to study creative art and design courses in Scottish universities over the past five years have stayed broadly stable - rising from 18,775 in 2015 to 20,045 in 2016 before declining over the next three years to 18,195 in 2019. A similar pattern can be observed in the number of acceptances which have remained almost flat - from 2,665 in 2015 to 2,675 in 2019. Within this overall pattern, the largest increase has been in drama. These figures are for applications and acceptances from the UK as a whole, although the number from other parts of the UK is well below the average for all subjects. In 2018-19 there were 2,240 Scottish domiciled entrants. To put the role of specialist institutions in perspective, only 12 per cent were at the Glasgow School of Art (170) and the RCS (105).

Taking three years - 2016-17 to 2018-19 - together, 14 per cent of first-degree entrants to courses in creative art and design were from SIMD20 areas. The highest proportion of SIMD20 entrants was in drama (19 per cent) and the lowest in fine art and cinema and photography (11 per cent). The proportion in music was 13 per cent. In creative art and design the share of entrants from the most advantaged SIMD quintile was 26 per cent, lower than in either medicine or law. There was almost a smaller variation in earnings among creative art and design graduates in sustained employment five years after graduation than in medicine and law. The median was £19,000, and the median for those from the most socially advantaged backgrounds was only £1,500 higher than for those from the most socially deprived. The data, therefore, suggests that there is significantly less of a fair access 'problem' in creative art and design than in either medicine or law.

But there is no room for complacency. First, entrants to courses in creative arts and design are still almost twice as likely to come from the most socially advantaged SIMD quintile than from the most socially deprived SIMD quintile. Secondly, although there is no data about graduates from other subjects who become creative practitioners, it is a reasonable assumption that they are similarly skewed to the more socially advantaged. Thirdly, pressure on local authority budgets is leading to cuts in schools, for example in music tuition. Aberdeen, Edinburgh and North Lanarkshire have reduced support for their music services, and are likely to introduce tuition charges. As the entry standard to Conservatoire-level courses cannot be met without additional tuition, whether school or local authority based or private, potential applicants from more deprived backgrounds are likely to be disadvantaged. Fourthly, access to creative jobs after graduation is often through networks of personal contacts and often unpaid internships or poorly paid casual jobs, which also tends to disadvantage graduates without these contacts, or the self-confidence needed to gain them.

Access initiatives

As with medicine the primary point of leverage to secure fair access is at the pre-admission and admission stages. Typically universities do not have dedicated programmes targeted on access to creative subjects and design, although they are covered by local school and local authority partnerships and regional networks on widening access. Potential applicants from more socially deprived areas and low-progression schools and the care-experienced are able to benefit from the adoption of minimum entry requirements and adjusted offers. The creative professions are not covered by the special access programmes for high-demand professions such as law and medicine. Dedicated access programmes are offered by specialist arts institutions as part of their efforts on widening access. The RCS's Transitions programme focused on schools and funded by the SFC has been one of the most successful. Almost three-quarters of its most recent cohort are from SIMD20 areas and 15 per cent are care-experienced. This has been reflected in a significant increase in SIMD40 applicants and entrants. The Conservatoire also runs a Widening Access to the Creative Industries (WACI) programme, and supports nine music centres in local authorities and also regional arts hubs and other outreach activities.

But universities (and, in particular, the two specialist arts institutions, GSA and RCS) can also have a powerful influence over shaping attitudes to future access to and employment in the creative professions. Their efforts on fair access in admissions and progression will be undermined by the persistence of career barriers that impact more severely on graduates from more deprived social backgrounds. In effect a seamless approach is needed from school (even primary school), through admission to and progression through higher education to professional practice. This is - comparatively - straightforward in medical education where university education, postgraduate training and professional practice are tightly integrated, with a small number of actors such as medical schools, the GMC and the NHS. This seamless whole-system approach is more difficult to achieve in the case of law, although as it is a licensed profession and qualifying law degrees are accredited by the primary regulator the Law Society. It is more difficult still in the case of the creative professions which are unregulated (with a very few exceptions) and where future practitioners arrive through a wide variety of routes and professional and career pathways are irregular. However, the success of fair access to higher education ultimately depends on a wider whole-system approach that not only looks back to schools but forwards to future professional practice.

Discussion and recommendations

It may seem that, unlike law and medicine, the disconnect between entry to first-degrees in universities and eventual employment in the creative professions is too great to allow fair access to these professions to be a realistic policy objective (or even concern). There are just too many diverse and disjointed pathways to allow any points of intervention apart from the general policies that universities have adopted to increase their intake (and proportion) of SIMD20 and other disadvantaged applicants and to ensure that their continuation and completion rates and degree outcomes and employment patterns broadly match those of the general student population. Only the two specialist arts institutions, GSA and the RCS, might have some additional leverage to promote fairer employment outcomes because of their close links with creative practitioners.

However, to leave it at that would mean that efforts to promote fair access to a wide range of professions, which are not licensed and which do not recruit all (or most) future practitioners through dedicated professional pathways, would be redundant. This could be regarded as an abdication of responsibility. The aspirations of university applicants are shaped by their perceptions of future employment prospects. If these prospects are seen to be limited for students from more socially deprived backgrounds it is only to be expected their aspirations will be correspondingly reduced. No amount of outreach, or exhortation, can change that logic. Although entry to creative arts and design courses is not as unequal as entry to law and especially medicine, applicants from the most socially disadvantaged groups are still twice as likely to get places as those from the most deprived backgrounds. The perception that access to, and success in, some of the key creative professions is socially biased to a similar or even greater extent is likely to act as a drag on efforts to achieve fair access.

To be successful in the first place, and to be sustained, fair access must be a whole-system process. The entire journey from secondary education (and, indeed, primary education) through further and higher education to employment (and wider career opportunities post-initial employment) needs to be treated as a single flow that stress interdependencies rather than variables. This means that fairer access in relation to the creative industries is an important test case. In contrast, securing fairer access to law and medicine, however difficult to achieve at the level of practical issues, is more straightforward. The challenge is to devise policies and measures that are more specific than the policies and measures that apply to entry (and progression and success) for university courses generally, while accepting they cannot be as targeted as those in law and medicine.

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 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.


Email: karen.frew@gov.scot

Back to top