Implementing 'A Blueprint for Fairness': progress report

Report on the implementation of the Blueprint's recommendations for achieving equality of access to higher education in Scotland.

Progress on Implementation

The Scottish Government

Foundational recommendations for the Scottish Government

Recommendation 1: The Scottish Government should appoint a Commissioner for Fair Access by the end of 2016

Delivered on time

Professor Sir Peter Scott was appointed Commissioner for Fair Access in December 2016. This is an independent role, with a remit to provide leadership and drive progress but also to hold to account all those with a role to play in achieving equal access. Peter is a Professor of Higher Education Studies at University College London's Institute of Education.

The Scottish Government has established a team to support Professor Scott in his role as Commissioner. The team includes a Widening Access Manager from the University sector and provides professional support in the areas of statistical analysis, research, and access practice and policy. The team also supports the Commissioner's diary and engagement arrangements.

Progress with delivery of the Commissioner's recommendations is discussed below and further information on the Commissioner for Fair Access is available on the Commissioner's website.

Recommendation 22: The Scottish Government should replace student living costs loans with a non-repayable bursary and provide a more flexible package of student support for learners with a care experience from academic year 2017/18. This should include:

  • amending the previous study rules to allow those with a care experience more than one extra year of full funding where circumstances require this; and
  • options for those with a care experience to extend a year of their course to complete it part-time over two years with full funding, similar to the arrangements already in place for those with disabilities and elite athletes.

Delivered on time

From 2017/2018, new and continuing care experienced students undertaking an eligible undergraduate course will be eligible to apply for a funding package of tuition fees and a non-income assessed Care Experienced Students Bursary. The amount available in 2017/2018 is £7,625. Applications for 2017/18 opened on 10th April 2017.

The Commission deliberately used the term 'care experienced' within its recommendations as opposed to 'care leaver'. It wanted to take an inclusive approach, which recognised that the challenges faced by those with care experience continue throughout their education and beyond, having a long term impact on educational attainment and employment outcomes. The term 'care experienced' is widely used. Unlike 'care leaver' or 'looked after', however, it is not a term that is defined in legislation. To implement the bursary it was therefore necessary for the Government to establish criteria against which the Student Awards Agency for Scotland ( SAAS) could assess eligibility.

After consideration of analysis and research on educational outcomes for people with a care experience, alongside discussion with key stakeholders including Who Cares? Scotland, Ministers decided that the nature of a person's care experience should not restrict their eligibility for the bursary i.e. anyone who has been looked after by a local authority would be considered 'care experienced' for the purpose of the bursary. The bursary is currently limited to those aged under 26 on commencement of their course.

Recommendation 32: The Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council should implement the following targets to drive forward the delivery of equal access in Scotland:

To realise the First Minister's ambition of equality of access to higher education in Scotland:

  • By 2030, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education. Equality of access should be seen in both the college sector and the university sector.

To drive progress toward this goal:

  • By 2021, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 16% of full-time first-degree entrants to Scottish universities as a whole.
  • By 2021, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 10% of full-time first degree entrants to every individual Scottish university.
  • By 2026, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 18% of full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities as a whole.
  • In 2022, the target of 10% for individual Scottish universities should be reviewed and a higher level target should be considered for the subsequent years.

Implementation underway

The Government accepted the Commission's targets in full. In its letter of guidance to the Scottish Funding Council ( SFC), the Government set out its expectation that the SFC demonstrate how Scotland's colleges and universities are contributing to the targets set by the Commission, which should be reflected clearly within Outcome Agreements.

Further information on the steps taken by the SFC to build these targets into its outcome agreement process is provided in the SFC section of the report below.

Work to deliver other recommendations for the Scottish Government

Four of the remaining recommendations for the Scottish Government (Recommendations 23 and 29-31) relate to improved measurement, analysis or sharing of information. Implementation is being led by Scottish Government analysts in liaison with other data users and providers. A summary of progress with these recommendations, along with Recommendation 28 on regulation, is provided below.

Identifying learners with care experience (Recommendation 23)

The implementation of an approach to identify learners with a care experience will potentially require changes to administration and IT structures in the education sector and is a long-term project. Initial scoping work identified substantial technical and ethical barriers associated with implementing a 'marker or flag' as recommended by the Commission. In response, the Scottish Government is currently exploring alternative approaches that are likely to involve more targeted use of existing data to allow learners' experience of care to be confirmed at key stages using a robust and consistent approach. In keeping with the spirit of the Commission's recommendation, we aim to agree an approach which minimises the burden on learners, institutions, support providers and local authorities.

Tracking learner progress and sharing data (Recommendation 29)

The implementation of a unique learner number ( ULN) is another significant, long-term commitment, likely to require changes to administration and IT structures across the education sector. The Scottish Government is currently conducting a feasibility exercise with IT specialists and key stakeholders to determine the most suitable approach.

The Scottish Government has also consulted admissions professionals at all Scottish universities on their contextual admissions policies and practices, including the indicators used and additional data required. The findings will guide the development of a core dataset of school level indicators to be made available to all institutions to use for contextual admissions.

Further work on data access arrangements will be scheduled as the work on developing measures (Recommendation 31) progresses, on the basis that any new approach to identifying students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds for measurement purposes should use data that admissions professionals can access and use when considering applications.

Improving analyses and publication of data (Recommendation 30)

The SFC is currently reviewing its Learning for All publication. Analysts at the SFC have worked with colleagues in the Scottish Government to map current access data, identify overlaps and gaps, and explore options for new analyses. The SFC will consult key data users and data providers in the coming months and will publish the first edition of its successor access publication later in the year. The new publication will provide a coherent and consistent set of statistics to allow better monitoring of fair access at key stages.

Prior to the Commission's final report, Scottish Government analysts were already working with UCAS on improving the presentation of Scottish data and UK comparisons. The SFC, meanwhile, was working with the Higher Education Statistics Agency ( HESA) on improving its UK-wide Performance Indicators on widening access. Discussions with HESA, UCAS and others following the Commission's final report confirmed that the development of an agreed method for UK comparisons, in the spirit of the Commission's recommendation, is an ambition shared by key UK-wide stakeholders. These discussions also highlighted several technical and presentational issues that we are currently looking to address through established UK-wide statistical forums.

Developing measures to identify access students (Recommendation 31)

This recommendation is being delivered through two complementary strands of work. Firstly, we are working to improve the quality of the data and measures available. The Commission identified measures that could potentially be used to supplement the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation ( SIMD) but highlighted fundamental issues regarding their robustness, coverage and consistency. The Scottish Government is currently exploring the potential to address these issues through data linkage or additional data collection.

Secondly, we will confirm which measures are the most appropriate identifiers to use and agree an approach to using those measures in combination, to identify access students. The Commission found a consensus among experts on the types of measures that should be used but not on the best way to combine measures in practice. The Universities Scotland Admissions working group is likely to touch on similar issues and will provide further feedback from the sector. The evidence base on the validity and relative importance of potential additional measures, such as those proposed by the Commission, is growing. SFC-funded research from the University of Glasgow published in December 2016 showed the relative importance of the SIMD quintile a pupil lives in and the school they attend, on their likelihood of progressing to higher education. Further SFC-funded research from Durham University will provide initial recommendations on the most suitable potential indicators in the summer of 2017 with further empirical analysis to follow in the autumn.

Embedding access objectives in wider regulatory frameworks (Recommendation 28)

The initial stage of this work is to identify what is currently included within regulation to support the access objectives and where regulation could be further enhanced. The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science will shortly write to the relevant agencies and public bodies on this matter.

Integration with wider Scottish Government policy

Implementation of the Commission's recommendations sits within the context of wider work to improve the life chances and educational opportunities of young people in Scotland. We will seek to align all implementation with existing and future policy developments. A number of new policy developments have been initiated since publication of the Commission's final report. Five of the Commission's recommendations are now being taken forward by, or in parallel with, these areas as outlined below.

15 to 24 Learner Journey Review

The 15-24 Learner Journey review is a programme of work, led by the Scottish Government in partnership with others, to review the effectiveness and efficiency of the Learner Journey for all 15 to 24 year olds. The review is considering the 15-24 Learner Journey from the senior phase (S4-S6) to employment, including the stages of further and higher education in college, higher education in university, vocational training and apprenticeships. Work to deliver Recommendation 6 (Better use of key transition phases) and Recommendation 17 (Improved offer of information and guidance) will be taken forward through this review.

Further and Higher Education Student Support Review

This independent review, chaired by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, has a remit to thoroughly review student support and ensure that the entire system is firmly focused on meeting the needs of all students in further and higher education. The review was launched in October 2016 and is scheduled to report to Ministers by autumn 2017. The Chair met with the Commissioner for Fair Access in May to discuss the links between the Student Support Review's work and the findings of the Commission. Work to deliver Recommendation 19 (Research on student finance) and Recommendation 20 (Better information on student finance) will be considered in the context of this review.

Review of the Care System

The independent Care Review will look at the underpinning legislation, practices, culture and ethos of the care system. Work to deliver Recommendation 23 (An approach to validate care experience across education) will be taken forward in the context of this review.

The Scottish Funding Council

Foundational recommendations for the Scottish Funding Council

Recommendation 32: The Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council should implement the following targets to drive forward the delivery of equal access in Scotland:…

Implementation underway

Following acceptance of the proposed targets by the Scottish Government, the SFC has integrated these targets into its Outcome Agreement Guidance and negotiation process with universities. Widening Access is presented within the Guidance as the SFC's top priority and, in addition to setting numerical targets for access, each institution has been asked to:

… summarise their strategies to reduce barriers, and proactively promote access to higher education to learners from deprived or disadvantaged backgrounds. This summary should include evidence of strategic commitment to and aspirations for widening access to disadvantaged groups (specifically those from SIMD20 and care experienced backgrounds).

In addition, the SFC has provided guidance to institutions on its expectations with regard to the ongoing use of the additional access places that have been funded to support access over the last four years. These places will continue to be funded from 2017/18 and, from 2018/19, they should be focused solely on supporting the intake of students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (referred to as SIMD20).

Other recommendations for the Scottish Funding Council

The SFC plays a key role in funding and supporting access activity, and in the outcome agreement process. This means that, as well as a responsibility to deliver the recommendations it was set by the Commission, the SFC also has a significant role to play in the successful delivery of other Commission recommendations. To take forward its work the SFC has therefore established five work streams that cover all SFC recommendations but also acknowledge the SFC's role in supporting wider delivery:

  • Evidencing improvements in the admissions and selection processes (Recommendations 11-12, 14, 15 and 21-23);
  • Engaging with schools (Recommendations 4, 15, 16, 18)
  • Effective pathways and transitions into higher education (Recommendations 5-10)
  • Funding, targets and regulation (Recommendations 24-27, 32)
  • Measurement and reporting (Recommendations 30-31).

A summary of each of these work streams is provided below.

Evidencing improvements in the admissions and selection processes

As noted above, the SFC has funded research from Durham University into contextualised admissions and has requested greater information on current contextualised admission processes within institutions' Outcome Agreements. In addition to the above, the SFC is also contributing to these recommendations through its support for the Universities Scotland's Admissions Working Group and through membership of the Framework for Fair Access Group.

Engaging with schools

The SFC has undertaken initial consultation work with its existing school related access initiatives to seek to better coordinate activities. This has led to the proposal for a School Engagement Framework ( SEF) which is being considered by the SFC's Access and Inclusion Committee. Through a more integrated approach the SEF will seek to achieve greater reach and impact through the SFC's school related initiatives, by:

  • Engaging with all schools;
  • Targeting support to socioeconomically disadvantaged pupils, not only those in low progression schools;
  • Engaging with pupils earlier i.e. P7 and S1 onwards;
  • Securing regional discussions and agreed outcomes;
  • Removing duplication.

Effective pathways and transitions into HE

This work stream will take forward the SFC's work on flexible transitions and articulation. It will encompass work to improve monitoring of articulation including development of a new Articulation Database to replace the National Articulation Database, previously hosted by the Edinburgh and Lothian's Articulation Data Hub. Work is also being undertaken to review the effectiveness and future direction of the additional articulation places funded through the SFC. The SFC has set out its national aspirations for growth in the college and university Outcome Agreement Guidance for 2017-20. The SFC is also supporting Universities Scotland's working group on Articulation, and is represented on both Universities Scotland's Admissions Group, and the Scottish Government's Learner Journey project group on Provision and Transitions.

Funding, targets and regulation

This work stream has taken forward implementation of targets as outlined above. The SFC will also conduct a review of the use and effectiveness of the additional access places funded over the last four years. This will inform future funding decisions.

Measurement and reporting

This work stream includes the SFC's contribution to delivery of Recommendations 30 and 31 jointly with the Scottish Government as outlined above.

The Commissioner for Fair Access

Strategic Role of the Commissioner for Fair Access

As set out above and in line with Recommendation 1, a Commissioner for Fair Access was appointed in December 2016.

The main functions of the Commissioner are to:

  • Lead cohesive and system wide efforts to drive fair access in Scotland; acting as an advocate for access for disadvantaged learners and holding to account those with a role to play in achieving equal access, including Ministers and the SFC;
  • Coordinate and prioritise the development of a more substantial evidence base on the issues most pertinent to fair access, including the commissioning and publication of independent research and the development of a Framework for Fair Access;
  • Publish, annually, a report to Ministers outlining the Commissioner's views on progress towards equal access in Scotland to inform development of effective policy at national, regional and institutional level.

Engagement and Leadership

Since his appointment the Commissioner has met with key stakeholders and visited institutions to meet staff and students involved in access. The Commissioner has also delivered presentations and keynote addresses at events and conferences throughout Scotland, as well as writing contributions for newspapers and other publications. Where possible the Commissioner will make these available on his website. Throughout his engagements the Commissioner has purposely kept alive the debate on what fair access means to different people and has sought to encourage open discussion on a range of important and often challenging access topics. These include: access thresholds, displacement and the use of SIMD.

Improving the evidence base

The Commissioner is keen to look at how we can make better use of the evidence and data currently available to inform access activity and policy. He also wishes to make information as accessible as possible. To this end, the Commissioner has chosen to make his initial contribution to improving the evidence base through a series of Briefing Papers on key issues relating to fair access. These will seek to present evidence in an accessible and objective form; and will also include a short commentary by the Commissioner to highlight key gaps, issues and choices. The first two briefing papers will focus on applications and contextual admissions and will be published on the Commissioner's website before the end of June 2017.

Initial priority areas

The Commissioner intends to propose further areas for improvement going forward, in addition to those set out by the Commission. To do this, he will consider a number of specific access issues in greater detail within his annual report. The Commissioner will outline some of these areas at the SFC's Widening Access National Conference on 20 th June.

Foundational recommendations for the Commissioner for Fair Access

Recommendation 2: By 2018, the Commissioner for Fair Access, working with experts, should publish a Scottish Framework for Fair Access. This authoritative, evidence based framework should identify the most impactful forms of access activity at each stage of the learner journey, from early learning through to higher education and provide best practice guidelines on its delivery and evaluation.

On track for delivery in 2018

To take forward this recommendation, the Commissioner for Fair Access has convened a Framework Development Group to produce the initial iteration of the Framework. The group is chaired by Conor Ryan, Director of Research and Communications at the Sutton Trust and a member of the Commission.

The Commissioner is keen to ensure that those working on access play a key role in the development of the Framework as its primary purpose should be to support and enhance the work they do. Membership is therefore drawn from experts in widening access practice, research and evaluation. In addition to those listed below, the group will also include representatives from the college and school sectors.

Framework for Fair Access Development Group

Conor Ryan (chair) - Director of Research and Communications, Sutton Trust

Kenny Anderson - Director, SWAP West

Dr Vikki Boliver - Director of Research, School of Applied Social Sciences, Durham University

Dr Dee Bird - Assistant Director/ Outcome Agreement Manager, Scottish Funding Council

Dr Katrina Castle - Head of Widening Access, Edinburgh Napier University

Dr Neil Croll - Head of Widening Participation, University of Glasgow

Lynn Graham - Strategic Lead for Access to Higher Education, Scottish Government

Dr Stephanie Mckendry - Implementation Advisor/Researcher, Commissioner for Fair Access

Sarah Morrison - Manager, LIFT OFF (Schools for Higher Education Programme)

The Framework Development Group is not a strategic representative body, but rather a small, active working group created to design the Framework. Cross-sector engagement will therefore be crucial as the group's work progresses and this will be achieved through sustained consultation with relevant stakeholders throughout the design and development process.

Further information on the Framework Development Group is available on the framework section of the Commissioner's website.

Other recommendations for the Commissioner

In addition to the Framework, the Commissioner was tasked with implementing three further recommendations. A summary of progress on each of these is provided below.

University rankings (Recommendation 13)

The Commissioner recognises the importance that institutions place on university rankings and the impact they can have on driving behaviour. With all UK universities now tasked with doing more to widen access, he also recognises that a rankings process which penalises efforts to widen access could become a key barrier to progress. That said, the Commissioner also recognises the independence of the ranking process and will consider carefully, with key stakeholders, how best to take this work forward.

Research into student finance (Recommendation 19)

The original timescale for Recommendation 19 was for research to be commissioned within three months of the appointment of a Commissioner. The Commissioner has indicated that he does not want to undertake new research unless its purpose is clear. He also wishes to avoid duplicating or pre-empting the work of the current review of the student support system in Scotland, which was announced after the Commission reported. The Commissioner has met with Jayne Anne Gadhia (Chair of the Student Support Review Board) to discuss links between his work and that of the Board and how they can best support and complement each other going forward. He will give consideration to what further research is necessary within this context.

Access issues for other groups (Recommendation 33)

To take this work forward, the Commissioner first wants to establish the range of work that is already going on to support different groups of learners into, through and beyond higher education. He has asked his staff to bring together information on current activity and support for key groups of learners. He will use this to identify where further work is most needed.

The Wider Education System

Foundational recommendations for Universities

Recommendation 11: By 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. These access thresholds should be separate to standard entrance requirements and set as ambitiously as possible, at a level which accurately reflects the minimum academic standard and subject knowledge necessary to successfully complete a degree programme.


Recommendation 12: All universities should be as open and transparent as possible over their use of access thresholds and wider contextual admissions policies. In particular, they should seek to maximise applications from disadvantaged learners by proactively promoting the access thresholds to the relevant schools, pupils, parents, local authorities and teachers.

On track for delivery in 2019

Universities Scotland has established a working group on admissions and entry requirements, which will take forward work in relation to the above recommendations and also Recommendations 5, 14 and 21. The group is being led by Professor Sally Mapstone of the University of St Andrews. In addition to representatives from across the university sector, membership includes Colleges Scotland, NUS Scotland and the SFC.

The Admissions group is seeking to agree a 'core' set of contextual indicators and key terms across all universities. This work will then form the basis of a coordinated public information campaign. This will help to improve transparency and use of contextual admissions to support access thresholds. The group is also examining research that has mapped successful student outcomes to contextual indicators, to provide evidence to support the setting of access thresholds. The group is due to report back to universities in September 2017.

Recommendation 21: By 2017, those with a care experience, who meet the access threshold should be entitled to the offer of a place at a Scottish university. Entitlement should also apply to those with a care experience who have had to take a break from higher education and wish to return. Learners should be assessed against minimum entry level in 2017 and the access threshold thereafter.

On track for delivery 2017/18 academic year

Universities have for some time provided additional support and consideration to those with care experience as part of their admissions process. All universities have a named contact for those with care experience in order to provide one-to-one application support.

Staff supporting the Commissioner for Fair Access have been in contact with all universities regarding their contextual admissions processes and all have confirmed that they take care experience into consideration. The Government will continue to liaise with institutions and Universities Scotland on implementation of this recommendation during the 2017/18 application process. This recommendation is within the remit of the Universities Scotland Admissions group and will be considered in detail at the group's June 2017 meeting.

Other recommendations for Universities

Following publication of the Commission's final report, university leaders summarised an initial set of actions for higher education institutions in the document Futures Not Backgrounds. To take forward this work, Universities Scotland established three working groups, each covering a number of recommendations:

  • Admissions (Recommendations 5, 14, 21, as discussed above);
  • Articulation (Recommendations 8-10);
  • Bridging Programmes (Recommendations 4, 7, 15-16).

All three groups are due to report over the summer or into early autumn 2017. Universities will then start to implement the groups' recommendations. A summary of each of the working groups is provided below.

Admissions and entry requirements

The work of the Admissions group is outlined above in relation to Recommendations 11 and 12.


The Articulation group, led by Susan Stewart, Director of the Open University in Scotland, is undertaking a detailed analysis of articulation data at subject level. The group expects to use this to identify where there are gaps in articulation pathways in certain subjects. The group is also considering whether there are other qualifications, in addition to Higher Nationals, that could be used to articulate into university.

Bridging programmes

The Bridging Programme group is led by Professor Petra Wend from Queen Margaret University. The group is currently mapping the bridging programmes offered across Scotland. The group will use this to assess where there is a lack of opportunities and how universities can work together to give learners more choices.

Other parts of the education system

This report has summarised progress on implementation by the Scottish Government, the SFC, the Commissioner for Fair Access and Universities Scotland. Much of the work described above is being taken forward through joint working with representatives from other organisations or parts of the education system e.g. through the Framework Development Group; Universities Scotland's working groups; and the project groups of the 15 - 24 Learner Journey Review.

It is also recognised that within individual institutions and regions further work is being undertaken to progress the Commission's recommendations. In the next section of the report we set out how we plan to coordinate and monitor implementation activity going forward.


Email: Laura Duffy

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

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