Laying the foundations for fair access: annual report 2017 from the Commissioner for Fair Access

This is the first annual report from the Commissioner for Fair Access, covering the wider context of access to higher education in Scotland.


In this final section a number of specific recommendations are made for the Scottish Government, the Scottish Funding Council and universities.

Prioritising and measuring progress

There is a need for greater clarity about fair access targets for universities and fair access targets for higher education as a whole. Currently the 2030 target is for the latter, and the 2021 and 2026 interim targets for the former (with a 10 per cent minimum target for SIMD20 recruitment for individual universities). Although these targets in themselves are clear, they may send mixed messages about the primary task. Is the priority to increase SIMD20 participation in higher education, i.e. including colleges, or is it to increase SIMD20 participation in universities, perhaps with a particular emphasis on access to the ancient universities? At present targets cover both, although in terms of political and public debate, the emphasis often seems to be on the second. Striking the right balance is not easy. While it is important to ensure that all young people in Scotland have the opportunity to attend Scotland's leading universities, it is also important to maintain a diversity of provision and, in particular, not to downgrade the contribution of colleges and of vocational education.

Recommendation 1: The Scottish Government should take every opportunity to clarify the different agendas arising from the wider goal of fair access to higher education as a whole and the narrower goal of fair access to universities. It should make clear its view on their relative priority for the next four years in the lead up to delivery of the first CoWA targets.

Recommendation 2: In advance of reviewing institutional targets in 2022, as recommended by the Commission on Widening Access, the Scottish Government should encourage the widest possible national debate on this issue, in partnership with colleges and universities and other stakeholders.

Confusion and potential controversy can be created by the lack of up-to-date figures about the proportion of SIMD20 entrants to individual institutions, which can make progress difficult to measure. A recent example is the different figures given by the former First Minister (4.5 per cent) and by his alma mater, the University of St Andrews (7.2 per cent), the former based on the latest published data and the latter on the institution's own, more up-to-date, internal information.

Recommendation 3: The SFC and Scottish Government should work with the Higher Education Statistics Agency ( HESA) to ensure the data required to report on the proportion of SIMD20 entrants ( i.e. entrant domicile and home postcode) is prioritised within the HESA 'Data Futures' project, so that more timely data can be made available to measure progress towards meeting fair access targets.

Funding Higher Education

As a result of free tuition (for Scottish domiciled and other-European Union students) the total number of students in these categories is necessarily capped. Although the extent to which the total number of other students (from the rest of the UK and outside the EU), and in a fee-based system such as in England, is truly unrestricted may be exaggerated, the fixed cap inevitably raises concerns that the drive to recruit SIMD20 students may reduce opportunities for other students. This fear of displacement, highlighted by Audit Scotland, tends to erode support for fair access. More generally widening access when overall student numbers are increasing creates fewer dilemmas. For these reasons, it has been argued the Government should provide more funded places. On the other hand the Government has to weigh up competing demands for public expenditure. So there is no easy answer.

Recommendation 4: The Scottish Government should consider whether the total number of funded places in Scottish higher education needs to be increased in order to ensure that overall demand, from applicants from all social backgrounds, is met while maintaining the momentum towards fair access.

Recommendation 5: It should undertake to retain within the higher education budget any savings produced by any overall reduction in demand as a result of demography; the removal of other- EU students from the total of funded places after the UK leaves the EU (however undesirable Brexit may be); and any increase in efficiency produced by 'smarter' articulation (between HNs and degrees but also between S6 and first-year higher education).

The temptation to ring-fence any additional funded places for specific purposes, including the recruitment of SIMD20 students, is strong because it tends to produce 'quick wins'. The disadvantage is that when this ring-fencing comes to end, momentum may be lost because these activities have not been fully absorbed into the mainstream of the mission of all institutions. Although there is almost no evidence of a lack of commitment to fair access across Scottish higher education, the influence of countervailing forces on research intensive and high-tariff universities in particular has to be acknowledged.

Recommendation 6: If additional funded places are made available by the Scottish Government, only a proportion of them should be ring-fenced to support fair access. Institutions should be free to use a proportion in ways they determine, in the hope that this will ease fears of displacement and also in the hope that fair access will be accepted as a mainstream goal by all. If no additional places are provided, there will be no alternative to setting new targets beyond the existing access places.

Recommendation 7: Progress towards fair access targets should continue to be monitored by the SFC, not only with regard to the use of the proportion of any additional places ring-fenced but with regard to all the student places it funds.

Flexible Learner Pathways

Scotland has the potential to develop a comprehensive tertiary education system, from traditional study patterns in the ancient universities through to work-based learning. Key to success is the reduction of unjustified barriers and the creation of flexible learner pathways. The Learner Journey initiative could make a valuable contribution to the development of a tertiary education system. Also this initiative, although not specifically focused on fair access, has important implications for promoting fair access.

Recommendation 8: In taking the Review of the 15-24 Learner Journey forward, the Scottish Government should make clear how implementation will support fair access to higher education, as well as the range of education, training and employment opportunities available to young people. In particular it should focus on the development of flexible pathways between these various routes into higher education.

The merger of two separate Funding Councils (for higher education and for further education) into the SFC in 2005 opened up the possibility of creating a truly tertiary system of post-school education in Scotland. This cannot be achieved under the regulatory, governance and funding arrangements that exist in England. It is not criticism of present and past SFC board (and committee) members and senior officers to say that this possibility has not been realised. Other obstacles have stood in the way, including the provision of two separate systems of student financial support which is only now being addressed. The two-tier governance structure in colleges, with regional boards and individual college boards, may also complicate the realisation of a tertiary system. However, a properly integrated tertiary education system would lead to significant gains - for example, more seamless progression between further and higher education, and improved articulation between colleges and universities in higher education. These benefits have been demonstrated, in microcosm, by the University of the Highlands and Islands. Although not directly relevant to fair access, it is likely that more seamless progression and better articulation would make it easier for young people living in SIMD20 areas to gain access to higher education. The SFC has taken important initiatives in the past, for example the establishment of articulation hubs. But more can be done.

Recommendation 9: The SFC should aim to encourage seamless progression from further to higher education in colleges, and also work towards removing unnecessary differences in its funding and accountability systems for colleges and universities with regard to higher education provision. This need not involve far-reaching governance reforms, nor imply significant shifts in current funding patterns. The goal should be to produce a properly integrated and articulated tertiary education system across Scotland.

The Role of the Scottish Funding Council

The SFC, largely for reasons that does it credit, has been reluctant to use to the full the regulatory and other powers that it has been given. There is probably scope to make greater use of these powers - for example, to give directions to institutions - without undermining the freedom of all institutions to develop their own strategies in the light of the particular challenges and opportunities they face (and, in particular, the autonomy of universities which is a key principle in an open and democratic society). The SFC could play a more proactive role in shaping a national strategy for further and higher education in Scotland, within the broad policy priorities determined by the Government and paying due attention to the ambitions of individual institutions. Its value, and continuation, as a buffer body between Government and higher education may depend on its ability to assert this key role. The work undertaken with regard to access and inclusion is an example of how the Council can help shape the agenda and not remain largely reactive, although this has owed a great deal to the commitment and participation of institutional practitioners.

Recommendation 10: The SFC should take a stronger lead and have a clearer voice in debates about the future of higher (and further) education in Scotland. It should consider making more, and smarter, use of the powers it has been granted, acting as a bridge between high-level priorities established by the Government and the strategic goals of individual institutions. Fair access is a key area in which national coordination of institutional strategies and activities would be beneficial, below the level at which it is reasonable (or appropriate) to expect the Government to operate.

Outcome agreements between SFC and institutions are a useful instrument for agreeing their overall strategic direction in a comprehensive, holistic and joined-up manner, although there is some doubt about how robustly the SFC interrogates institutional priorities and objectives in the negotiations leading up to the agreements. In this respect they are a model within the UK. However, they are less well designed for shaping and monitoring progress in specific areas, including towards meeting fair access targets. This takes place through a range of subsidiary instruments - for example, the SFC's annual review of progress on widening access. In addition the SFC now produces Equality and Human Rights Impact Assessments ( EHRIA) of its policies, and institutions are required to produce Gender Action Plans. It is not always clear how these more detailed assessments and action plans relate to, and are coordinated with, high-level outcome agreements. It has also been argued that access agreements 'lack teeth', in the sense that it is not always clear what consequences flow from failure to meet agreed goals. In its latest guidance to the SFC the Government has emphasised the need to 'intensify' the use of outcome agreements.

Recommendation 11: The SFC should review its use of outcome agreements - ensuring that it offers a robust challenge to institutions in negotiating agreed goals and that outcome agreement and more detailed agreements and action plans (in areas such as fair access) are better integrated; and also that there is greater clarity about what sanctions it would be appropriate to impose when targets are not met. Consideration should be given to imposing penalties for non-delivery, not simply in relation to ring-fenced funding initiatives but to funding allocations more generally.

Outreach and Bridging Programmes

Universities already offer a wide range of outreach and bridging programmes. The pattern is currently one of institution-specific and bottom-up initiatives, with limited regional or national coordination through organisations such as SHEP. In some respects this organic growth of local initiatives has been healthy, because it demonstrates the commitment of individual institutions and the enthusiasm of institutional practitioners. These initiatives are also varied, ranging from outreach programmes in schools and communities to summer schools, and other forms of bridging programmes, that directly address perceived deficits in preparation for university study among disadvantaged applicants. But, as has already been argued, it also has a number of weaknesses in addition to the lack of sufficient national coordination. Some are focused too narrowly on meeting institutional targets for recruiting SIMD20 (and other disadvantaged) applicants without regard for the wider picture.

Recommendation 12: Universities should consider the designation of a common core for all summer schools and other bridging programmes across Scotland, based on identifying those elements that already appear in all or most programmes. Some of these elements clearly would need to be subject specific, and there should also be scope for institutions to customise some elements based on their particular needs. Greater commonality would produce greater consistency, making the content of these programmes more transparent to learners (and their advisers) and also making them more transferable. It would also make it easier to increase the scale of provision, which is clearly necessary.

Recommendation 13: Universities and Universities Scotland should work with the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework ( SCQF) and the Framework Development Group to develop an authoritative typology of bridging and outreach programmes and an easily accessible web-based database of courses. This should align to the evidence and best practice published in the Scottish Toolkit for Fair Access.

A new social covenant

Measures to achieve fair access are only one element in the wider links between universities and their communities, regions and nation. Others include the education of future teachers, who can play a direct role in changing attitudes to higher education in more deprived areas, and continuing education and lifelong learning programmes, which have the potential to empower whole communities, but also cultural activities and research projects with a strong community focus, which can send powerful signals about openness and inclusion. It is important to take a holistic view, rather than having separate access, continuing education, engagement and other strategies.

Recommendation 14: Universities should consider developing a new 'social covenant' that brings together all activities that reflect their wider social responsibilities - within their local communities, wider regions and Scotland as a whole (and, indeed, on European and international levels). Fair access initiatives should be firmly embedded within these new covenants.


Scotland's record on articulation, mostly but not exclusively from HNs to degrees, is patchy - there are examples of good practice where all, or most, HN students are given the option of entering with advanced standing; but there are also examples of little credit being given. Some of the reasons for this have been discussed earlier in this report. They include the prominent role played by colleges in the delivery of higher education, and their reluctance to accept a subordinate role to the universities by being labelled 'feeder' institutions (and HNs being denied their value as free-standing vocational qualifications), and also the greater preponderance of pre-1992 universities in the university sector. Although not all articulating students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, learners from SIMD20 areas are overrepresented among articulating students, and students taking this route are more likely to be from SIMD20 areas than students coming directly from school. Consequently this comparative failure needs to be urgently addressed - not simply because students should not have unnecessary obstacles to their progression placed in their way and because it represents poor use of public investment and limits the number of funded places; but also because a 21st-century tertiary education system should be designed with the needs of learners rather than the interests of institutions in mind, and because new modes of delivery, new types of programmes and even brand-new courses and qualifications are being developed that place an even higher premium on flexible pathways.

Recommendation 15: Universities should commit to substantially increasing the proportion of transferring HN students admitted with full credit (to at least the 75 per cent benchmark identified by the SFC), and all HND students, without exception, should be allowed to transfer into Year 2. If individual students are not given, or specific courses do not grant, full credit, the reasons should be specified, and fully justified, along with an action plan to remedy these perceived deficits in preparation.

Recommendation 16: Universities should commit to substantially increasing the number of transferring HN students they admit, and offering necessary support. In the case of universities with insufficient HN applicants to support such an expansion, active measures should be taken by establishing stronger links with local colleges to increase the supply. If voluntary action by universities is inadequate, the SFC should consider introducing institutional targets for articulation, enforced through outcome agreements.

Other forms of articulation

The four-year undergraduate degree should provide Scottish universities with greater scope to remedy shortcomings in preparation for university-level study, compared with the three-year degree standard in England and Wales. This is especially the case because most secondary school students stay on for a sixth year and many take Advanced Highers, which means that they match the academic level reached by A-level students in other parts of the UK. There is a limited evidence to suggest that good use is being made of the extra year. If the principle of a four-year undergraduate degree is to be preserved in the face of pressure for improved efficiency and rationalisation of the learner journey, universities need to build a stronger case for its continued importance despite changed circumstances.

Recommendation 17: Universities should make more imaginative use of the first year of undergraduate education, by paying more explicit attention to the learning needs arising from transition from school to university. This would benefit all students (even those with excellent entry grades).

More explicit use of the first year as a foundation year, a common practice in the United States, could also have a number of other advantages:

  • Some of the curriculum that is currently offered in summer schools could be incorporated;
  • The perceived educational deficits of some HN students could also be addressed by incorporating 'enhancement' elements that are currently included in some HNs;
  • The choice of Highers made during secondary education, which is generally regarded as an important reason why disadvantaged students with more limited access to sound advice have more limited access to universities, would become less crucial.

Recommendation 18: Universities should substantially increase the proportion of well qualified S6 leavers with Advanced Highers admitted into Year 2 - to reduce any possibility of 'coasting' and to reduce repetition of the curriculum; and also to increase efficiency and generate more funded places within the existing budget.

Contextual Admissions

Contextual admissions, based on making adjusted offers to individual applicants and allowing minimum entry requirements (or, in the words of the Commission on Widening Access, Access thresholds) to be identified, are the most powerful tool for achieving fairer access to higher education. All universities have acquired considerable experience in making contextual offers, and impressive progress has been made. However, more progress is needed. Greater consistency is needed to make contextual admissions more transparent to applicants - for example, which indicators are used (and which are most reliable); how these indicators are used (offering consideration or guaranteeing places, or some intermediate position); and what conditions are attached to adjusted offers (in particular, whether successful completion of a summer school is required). A recent Sutton Trust report has concluded that most universities (across the UK) provide only limited information about contextual admissions (Sutton Trust, 2017). The research evidence suggests that bolder use can be made of contextual admissions. The same report shows that reducing entry standards by just two grades would lead to a 50 per cent increase in the number of applicants who had been eligible for free school meals in top universities.

Recommendation 19: Universities, as recommended in the recent US report, should agree a common language to describe contextual admissions, and identify a set of common indicators to be used by all universities. The use of institution specific indicators should be the exception, not the norm.

Recommendation 20: Universities should publish a detailed guide to their contextual admissions processes and practices in as accessible a form as possible to ensure full transparency. This should include a list of indicators, common and specific, and an explanation of what the presence of each indicator means for applicants in terms of the actual offer they will receive.

Recommendation 21: Universities should make much bolder use of adjusted offers, by explicitly identifying acceptable risks of non-progression and failure to achieve good degree outcomes rather than merely tolerating limited variations from historical patterns.

Defining Success

Ministers have been very clear that SIMD20 students admitted to higher education, and in particular to universities, should be properly supported so that they can progress at a similar rate to students from more advantaged backgrounds and also benefit from broadly similar outcomes (although subsequent employment prospects are influenced by other factors apart from academic outcomes). This aim should be supported, while recognising that over-rigid adherence to current continuation rates and outcome patterns may act as a brake to SIMD20 recruitment and may not always reflect the financial and family circumstances of a more diverse student population. Similar considerations apply to part-time and adult education regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.

Recommendation 22: The Scottish Government should encourage a wide debate about definitions of 'standards' and 'success' (as measured by the continuation rates and degree outcomes typical of traditional students) without fear of ill-informed accusations of ''dumbing down'. In the case of formal indicators an acceptable degree of risk should be defined to identify minimum thresholds for success. It should work with institutions to ensure that - as far as possible - students who 'stop out' are not forced to 'drop out' by over-rigid definitions of progression.

Adult Learners

Current targets are for first-degree entrants to higher education, although the primary target group is generally assumed to be school-leavers and other young adults from SIMD20 areas. But it is important not to disadvantage older learners who may have been denied the opportunity to enter higher education when they were young - and are also likely to be the parents, or other relatives, of disadvantaged young people who are covered by these targets. An all-ages, as well as community based, approach is needed to break the cycle of deprivation. Institutions may be, unintentionally, discouraged from recruiting potential students in their mid- and late-20s because they have concentrated on the main target group, SIMD20 school-leavers.

Recommendation 23: The Scottish Government should make it clear that the Government's targets are for all first-degree entrants, regardless of age, despite the focus on breaking the cycle of deprivation for young adults. It should ensure that the needs of adult students from similar backgrounds are given the same priority as school-leavers.


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