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 3

Other forms of disadvantage

Socio-economic disadvantage, whether expressed at the community level (SIMD) or individual level (for example, FSMs), is clearly the major driver of inequality in rates of access to higher education. It is right that this tight focus on social class should be retained. Other drivers of inequality - age, race and ethnicity, gender, care-experience, disability, family estrangement and so on - are also important. But there could be a danger that the tight focus on social class, the primary driver of inequality, will be lost if efforts to address all the drivers of inequality are given equal weight.

But these other drivers also need to be urgently addressed, and embraced within the wider conversation about fair access.

  • First, disadvantage is experienced by individuals. A disabled applicant is no less deserving of attention and support because s/he comes from a more socially advantaged background. A female applicant may still suffer a reduction in her opportunities if she chooses to study a male-dominated subject (or the other way round) even if she comes from a middle class home. All adult and/or part-time students are disadvantaged compared with younger and/or full-time students because of the much more limited opportunities for adult study and appropriate financial support.
  • Secondly, in many cases there are significant interdependencies between social class and many forms of disadvantage. Most potential care-experienced applicants have suffered from various forms of socio-economic disadvantage. Family estrangement, although not confined to young people from more deprived social backgrounds, is likely to have a greater impact on future prospects for young people with more limited social advantages. Although some minority and ethnic minorities have enjoyed great success (including in some high-status professions), in general they face greater discrimination and higher barriers to success. Often the effects of socio-economic disadvantage are intensified by these other forms of potential disadvantage.

Fair access to higher education, therefore, is predominantly but not entirely about social class.

In the following discussion the primary focus is on universities which, of course, dominate aggregate figures for higher education. The student profile in colleges is different and, in the case of most other forms of disadvantage, substantially more representative of the general population.


There are two starkly different narratives about age with regard to fair access. According to the first narrative, opportunities for mature students in higher education provide a vital 'second chance' for those who were unable, for whatever reason, to gain entry as school leavers. According to the second, mature students tend, on average, to come from more socially advantaged backgrounds. In short-hand terms, 'second chance' or 'to him that hath shall be given'?

Which narrative is seen as the fairer representation of the extent to which mature entry impacts on wider access depends on what levels, and modes, of higher education are being considered. If increased participation by SIMD20 students is the measure, opportunities for older students to study part-time on sub-degree courses in colleges clearly make an important contribution to fair access, while opportunities for them to study full-time on first-degrees in universities make a more limited contribution. Although the proportion of SIMD entrants aged 21 and over is twice as high as for those under 21 (25.4 per cent compared with 11.9 per cent), this represents what might be called deferred initial entry rather than mature entry. It would be helpful if the SFC could include those studying at the Open University in Scotland in SIMD breakdowns for older students.

There are other factors to consider. Potential mature entrant from less socially deprived areas, who did not go onto higher education after school, are still relatively disadvantaged compared with their younger peers, who did have that opportunity - even if this does not register in terms of SIMD shares. This inter-generational disadvantage, inevitable because of the expansion of higher education over the past generation, deserves to be addressed. It is also important to recognise that opportunities for adult education at all levels and modes and in all institutional settings provide a gateway into higher education for mature students.

At present there is perhaps too much of a tendency to regard adult learning as a separate sector, provided by local authorities, voluntary and community bodies and employers, rather than as contributing to a wider tertiary education system. The Open University in Scotland, as well as being the major supplier of part-time degree education and a growing number of continuing education courses, has a pivotal role in mediating between traditional university education and adult education and community learning. It is important that its ability to do so, and to respond to specifically Scottish circumstances, is not constrained by over-tight control from the university's central apparatus in Milton Keynes

Care experience

Although the number of care-experienced students is small, this is an aspect of disadvantage that has a high political profile. Care-experience is recognised alongside SIMD20 as a key measure of progress towards fair access. In July 2019 Universities Scotland, on behalf of all universities, announced that care-experienced applicants who met minimum entry requirements would be guaranteed an offer of an undergraduate place at university from 2020 entry. This goes beyond the guarantee given to SIMD20 applicants. The presence of the First Minister at the launch of this initiative indicated how high-profile this issue has become. The SFC has also published its 'National Ambition' for care-experienced students. This high profile is important, because unlike the other forms of disadvantage discussed in this section, care-experience is not a protected characteristic in formal legal terms.

The focus on care-experience is entirely justified. It is clear that care-experienced younger people are substantially under-represented in higher education. According to Scottish Government figures, 2 per cent of young people are being looked after or on a child protection register.
In 2017-18, 36 per cent of those who were looked after for part-time of the year and 49 per cent of those who had been looked after for the whole year went on to higher or further education, compared with 94 per cent of other young people.

According to SFC figures (calculated on a wider basis to include those in foster care and kinship care as well as those being looked after or on a children protection register), the number of
full-time first-degree care-experienced students was only 320 (1 per cent) in 2018-19. However, this represents a welcome increase over the previous year (255 or 0.8 per cent) and a substantial increase since In 2013-14 (145 or 0.5 per cent). The SFC's National Ambition for
Care-Experienced students, announced in January 2020, is that by 2030 they should have the same opportunities as their peers. Although family breakdowns can occur at every level of society, the full disadvantages of care experience are more likely to impact on families suffering from multiple deprivation. There is likely to be a significant overlap between care-experience and residence in SIMD20 areas.

The likely effect of the high political profile on care-experience, Universities Scotland's pledge and the SFC's National Ambition is a further, hopefully substantial, increase in the number and percentage of care-experienced students. This will require multiple, sustained and coordinated interventions by social services, schools and voluntary organisations. However, guaranteed access to places in higher education will offer a powerful incentive and help to make these other interventions more likely to succeed. But its incentive effect will depend on effective communication of this guarantee to foster parents and others concerned with looking after young people in care.


Disabled students suffer substantial disadvantage. They are less likely to succeed at school so they are less likely to get university places. At university they continue to be disadvantaged despite the best efforts of institutions to accommodate their needs, and, in particular those with a mental health condition during their studies, they may find it more difficult to progress and succeed on the same terms as non-disabled students.

In February 2019, a discussion document was published on the Commissioner for Fair Access website that set out the then current data about disabled students and discussed the main issues that needed to be addressed. The data then suggested that disabled people, as might be expected, were under-represented in universities, although lack of reliable and consistent statistics on the share of the whole population that suffers from some form of disability makes it difficult to assess the precise degree of under-representation.

Disability, however, presents higher education with a number of different challenges.

  • First, disability comes in multiple forms. Physical handicaps are often easily identified, and the adjustments needed to allow them to participate fully in higher education are also easier to identify (although some, in particular adjustments to teaching buildings and residential and other facilities, involve substantial cost). But the two areas in which there has been significant growth in the number of disabled students - autism and mental health - present more complex challenges. The needs of students suffering from autism, on a wide spectrum from mild to severe symptoms, can be addressed by making special provision or appropriate adjustments for work in lectures and seminars, and also examinations and other forms of assessment. The needs of students with a mental health condition, where institutions face perhaps their most serious challenges, have been more difficult to identify. Those of the most seriously affected can generally be provided for in university health and/or NHS provision, although this puts a premium on smooth inter-agency working. But the more mildly (and, in particular, the intermittently) affected can be more difficult to manage.
  • Secondly, there are pitfalls in interpreting the data. The latest snapshot statistics show that in 2018-19 only 3.6 per cent of first-degree Scottish domiciled students received Disability Students' Allowance (DSA), funded by the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) or the Student Loans Company (SLC), and that this percentage is actually lower than it was five years earlier (4.3 per cent). But the same statistics also reveal that 16 per cent (or 18,830) had some form of known disability. Unlike DSA recipients, both the percentage and absolute number have increased over the same period. In 2014-15 they were 12 per cent and 13,260. This suggests that the most rapid increases have been in forms of disability that are less likely to attract DSA, which in turn may suggest that the criteria for receiving DSA may be too narrow and should be reviewed. Another possible interpretation is that the rise in disabled students may be mostly attributed to a large increase in number of students with a mental health condition which may not involve the payment of DSA and who may depend on other support measures - for example, mental health counselling in universities.
  • Thirdly, there seem to be differing interpretations, both of eligibility for DSA and also the total number of disabled students. The percentage of UK domiciled first-year students at Scottish institutions receiving DSA varies considerably - from 17.4 per cent at Glasgow School of Art to 1.5 per cent at the University of the West of Scotland. The reply to a Freedom of Information request made by an MSP two years ago also revealed unexplained variations. For example, the University of St Andrews reported that 15.8 per cent of students self-declared themselves as disabled, while at the University of Glasgow it was only 6 per cent. This variation on reporting is likely to be reflected in variability of special provision and support.


Compared with England (and, in particular, London and some other large English cities), ethnicity does not appear to be such a significant dimension of potential disadvantage. The reason is simple. Over 90 per cent of all UK domiciled students in Scottish higher education are white compared with fewer than 75 per cent in England. This reflected the ethnic composition of the Scottish population in which the BAME proportion increased from just 2 per cent in the 2001 census to 4 per cent in the 2011 census. Within Scotland there are wide variations in the proportion of BAME residents - from 11.6 per cent in Glasgow to only 0.7 per cent in Orkney. This overall increase, and the concentration of BAME residents in Scotland's largest cities, suggest that ethnicity is likely to become a more significant dimension of potential disadvantage in the future.

The proportion of Scottish domiciled BAME students in higher education is higher than in the general population, which reflects the different ethnic profile among younger age groups and also the continuing increase in the BAME share of Scotland's population since the 2011 census. The highest BAME share is among part-time students on further education courses in colleges. The proportion of BAME students on full-time first-degree is currently 8.8 per cent - 2,615 in 2017-18 compared with 1,415 in 2003-04. Half of BAME full-time first-degree students come from Asian backgrounds, as defined by the census. The number of BAME students on full-time higher education courses in colleges has also more than doubled over the same period.

There is evidence of a significant interrelationship between ethnicity and social class. In 2018-19, more than a quarter of BAME students in universities (26.7) were from SIMD20 areas, compared with 14.9 of white students. There was a similar although narrower gap among full-time higher education SIMD20 students in colleges - 36 per cent (BAME) compared with 27.5 per cent (white). So BAME students are substantially more likely to come from social deprived areas. This can be explained by a number of possible factors - that they actually suffer greater social disadvantage when mapped onto social class; that they are concentrated in big cities in poorer, generally SIMD20/40, areas as a result of cultural choices or broader discrimination although their residence may not reflect their socio-economic status; or, more positively, that despite these disadvantages, they have a greater appetite for higher education than the white population. Disentangling these complex factors is difficult in the absence of focused research.


At first sight it does not appear women face significant disadvantage in higher education compared to men. They make up a majority of both full-time and part-time students in universities - 59 per cent compared with 41 per cent, a gap of 18 per cent. That gap has widened over the past two decades. The proportion of women among part-time first-degree students is even higher, almost two-thirds. In higher education courses in colleges the picture is similar for full-time students but not among part-time students where their share has actually slipped from 56 per cent in 2003-04 to 44 per cent in 2017-18.

However, this optimistic picture needs to be qualified:

  • First, although women are in an overall majority, they are a minority among students from the most advantaged social groups. In the most advantaged SIMD quintile there are 5 per cent more men than women, and even in the next SIMD quintile there is still a majority of men. In contrast in the other three SIMD quintiles women predominate. Different subject choices play a part in explaining this pattern. So too do differences in school attainment, with women from SIMD20 areas outperforming men which is not the case in SIMD80 areas. But the continuing influence of deep-rooted cultural assumptions about gender roles cannot be discounted.
  • Secondly, the welcome progress towards increasing the proportion of SIMD20 applicants and entrants in universities is disproportionately due to an increase in participation among women. Men have lagged behind. While the SIMD profile of male students has changed only a little since 2013-14, the profile of female students has shifted significantly from the less to more deprived areas. In 2018-19, 16.9 per cent of female students came from SIMD20 compared to 14.3 per cent of male students. Over the same period, the proportion of female students from SIMD80-100 areas fell from 31.3 per cent to 25.3. A number of explanations have been suggested including that women from the most socially deprived social groups are less constrained by traditional roles. There has been no equivalent of feminism among young men to boost their self belief.
  • Finally, there are very substantial gender imbalances between subjects. In 2018-19, 86 per cent of first degree entrants in subjects allied to medicine and 85 per cent in education were women. In computer science 82 per cent and in engineering and technology 81.5 per cent were men. These differences feed though into degree class profiles (as has just been said) and also future earnings and access to some high-status professions. These imbalances may also act as a disincentive for women to apply for male dominated subjects and vice versa. In its gender action plan, the SFC has made a commitment to discourage imbalances of more than three-to-one (75 per cent).


Although social class is the single most important factor in unequal access to higher education, these other factors should also be given due weight. As this brief discussion has shown, there are important cross-overs between social class and most of these other factors, notably care experience, ethnicity and (to a lesser degree) age.

This suggests not only that a continuing focus on SIMD will help indirectly to address potential discrimination on other grounds - but also that focused efforts to address these other disadvantages will help indirectly to tackle socio-economic disadvantage. These are not competing but mutually supportive agendas in the wider cause of securing fair access to higher education.

Even when the inter-relationship is less clear - in the case of age (partly), disability and gender - there are good reasons why these factors should also be embraced within the wider agenda of securing fair access to higher education. Older, disabled and female students all suffer disadvantage (although in different ways), even if they do not come from more socially deprived backgrounds.

For these reasons it is important that SIMD20 targets and action plans on disability, gender and ethnicity are properly coordinated as elements within the wider drive to fair access, rather than as separate agendas.

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

Back to top