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.

Key Messages

  • Scotland has the highest rate of participation in higher education in the United Kingdom and one of the highest in Europe. But young people from the most privileged homes are still three times more likely to go to higher education than those from the most disadvantaged - and over three times as likely to go to university.
  • The Scottish Government's target that by the end of the next decade 20 per cent of new entrants to higher education will come from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland - a truly level playing field in terms of access - is among the most ambitious in the world. But, although challenging, it is achievable.
  • Progress towards meeting that target, and individual targets for colleges and universities, has been steady. But the current forward momentum may not be sufficient. Bolder steps will be required - by the Scottish Government, the Scottish Funding Council and (most) institutions.
  • All institutions must make a contribution to meeting the 2030 target. It is crucial that the ancient universities, which currently have the most privileged student intakes, play a full part - and a leadership role. But it is equally important that the key role played by colleges, which enroll a much higher proportion of students from more deprived backgrounds, is respected and reinforced.
  • Free higher education for Scottish students provides the foundation on which fair access can be built. But it is a necessary rather than sufficient condition. Other decisive action is needed - in terms of admissions, progression by college students to universities, academic support and financial aid.
  • Making lower offers to applicants from deprived backgrounds is not 'dumbing down' entry standards. Not all applicants have the same advantages, in terms of family support or school experience. Making the same offer to everyone is not only unfair; it fails to identify students with the greatest potential. Universities need to make much bolder use of contextual admissions.
  • Admitting more students from deprived backgrounds is only the first stage. They must receive the support - academic, financial and pastoral - they need to succeed. But, just as the use of contextual admissions opens up a debate about how entry 'standards' should be defined, there needs to be an equivalent debate about how 'success' is defined.
  • Scotland has a unique opportunity to produce a joined-up tertiary education system, across higher and further education and workplace learning. This would reduce barriers to progression, benefitting all learners but especially those from more deprived backgrounds, and increase the efficiency and capacity of the system.
  • College students with Higher Nationals ( HNs) who transfer to universities should receive full credit as a matter of routine. Anything less needs rigorous justification. Smarter articulation promotes fair access by freeing up more college-university pathways but also by creating more capacity generally.
  • There is also scope for improving the transition between school and university - a better fit between S6 and Year 1, more co-delivery of the curriculum, and greater opportunities for S6 learners with Advanced Highers to go straight into Year 2. This would produce the same benefits as smarter articulation between HNs and degrees.
  • Unfair access is rooted in socioeconomic deprivation, typically located in particular communities and perpetuated across generations. There are other forms of disadvantage - age, disability, immigrant status and so on - which also need to be urgently addressed. But none is as intractable and as deeply entrenched as socioeconomic deprivation, which must remain the main focus of fair access.
  • The Scottish Government should review the number of funded places it provides for Scottish students. It should guarantee that any savings produced by demographic change, Brexit or smarter articulation between HNs and degrees (and schools and universities) will be retained within the higher education budget. This would also help to address fears that some students are being 'displaced' by more deprived applicants.
  • The Scottish Funding Council should make fuller use of its powers to promote fair access, and ensure that outcome agreements become effective instruments not just for monitoring but also rewarding performance in line with the Government's desire to see their use 'intensified'.


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