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.

Chapter 1: Setting the Scene

Higher Education in Scotland

The Treaty of Union that created the United Kingdom in 1707 left untouched the church, law and education. The universities, still confined to the four ancient universities until the 20th century, played an important role in maintaining and developing Scottish identity. Their contribution to the European Enlightenment was far greater than that of England's only two universities, Oxford and Cambridge. In the 19th century they embodied the idea of the 'democratic intellect' through an emphasis on philosophy-based general education. The parallel idea that university education was open to the 'lad o'pairts', part-truth and part-myth, was part of Scottish universities' DNA. Today's commitment to fair access is rooted in this distinctive history.

Today, Scottish higher education remains distinctive in other ways that are relevant to fair access:

  • Participation in higher education is higher in Scotland than in England, by over 6 percentage points. The 2015/16 higher education initial participation rate ( HEIPR) in Scotland was 56 per cent (Scottish Funding Council, 2017), while in England it was 49 per cent (Department for Education, 2017). This means that there are young people in Scotland who access higher education who would not enjoy such access in England (Chart 1).

Chart 1: Higher Education Initial Participation Rate, Scotland and England, 2007/08 to 2015/16

Source: Scottish Funding Council and Department for Education

Chart 1: Higher Education Initial Participation Rate, Scotland and England, 2007/08 to 2015/16

  • Almost 30 per cent of higher education entrants are enrolled in colleges in Scotland, compared with under 10 per cent in England. Two-year vocational qualifications, Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, are more common than south of the Border. Conversely a lower proportion of students is enrolled in 'post-1992' universities, mainly because Scotland did not create polytechnics in the 1970s.
  • Scotland's approach to the funding and planning of higher education is now the exception in the United Kingdom (although it was the rule throughout the UK until 1999). Scottish domiciled students pay no fees. In contrast in England students are charged fees of £9,250 a year.
  • Scottish higher education is also a managed system. The Scottish Funding Council, through outcome agreements negotiated with institutions shapes their strategic direction. The Scottish Government offers high-level guidance about national priorities (including fair access). There is little dissent from the principle that Scottish higher education should be an essentially 'public' system. In contrast, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is about to be replaced by the Office for Students, a body with a regulatory rather than planning (or 'steering') remit.

A distinctive approach to fair access

Fair access is accepted as a desirable goal across all the nations of the UK, and the wider world (Atherton et al., 2016). The current imbalances in access among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, again common across the UK, are widely recognised as unacceptable in terms of social justice (and constitute a dangerous 'democratic deficit') and also of economic efficiency. A recent strategy document from the Sutton Trust neatly brought these two strands together by stating that, if social mobility in the UK was similar to social mobility in western Europe as a whole, the UK's Gross Domestic Product would be 2.1 per cent higher (Sutton Trust 2017).

Despite these shared UK-wide concerns, historical differences - now reinforced by differences in funding and planning - have led to distinctive approaches to fair access. In Scotland widening participation and fair access are firmly rooted in, and an extension of, the principle that higher education - like school and further education - should be free for students, with its cost largely being met by public expenditure. In England fair access policies, to a substantial extent, are designed as compensatory actions to mitigate the potentially adverse effects of high fees. In order to charge the maximum fee allowed, English institutions are required to have access agreements with the Office for Fair Access (now to be incorporated into the Office for Students). Typically these agreements cover outreach programmes, adjusted entry tariffs and other measures to make it easier for applicants from less advantaged backgrounds to be admitted to higher education.

Fair access, therefore, sits on an entirely different philosophical basis in Scotland than in England. Despite the arguments that have been made about the relative effectiveness of detailed access policies in the two countries (which will be discussed later in this report), it is essential to recognise this fundamental difference. As Commissioner for Fair Access I have no doubt that, regardless of the difficulties that have been and will be encountered in meeting the target that by 2030 20 per cent of entrants to HE should come from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland (in other words, a truly 'level playing field'), Scotland, where the principle of free higher education has been preserved, starts from a much better place than England.

Policy milestones

Fair access has been a preoccupation of the Scottish Government since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament and of a devolved administration in 1997. However the focus on fair access has intensified since the mid-2000s. The Scottish Government has produced two major policy papers:

Putting Learners at the Centre: Delivering Our Ambitions for Post-16 Education (September 2011). This pre-legislative paper established fair access as a major priority and opened the door to widening access agreements between the Scottish Funding Council and institutions. It also foreshadowed the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Act which places a statutory duty on both the council and institutions to promote wider access.

First Minister - Programme for Government (November 2014). This paper renewed the emphasis on fair access to higher education as a key element in the Scottish Government's priority for education. The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also announced the ambition that 20 per cent of new entrants to higher education in 2030 should come from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland. The paper also foreshadowed the establishment of the Commission on Widening Access. The Commission's final report A Blueprint for Fairness was published in March 2016.

The Scottish Government has also recognised that financial support for students is a key element in promoting fair access, particularly for students from more deprived backgrounds (as the National Assembly Government in Wales also recognised when it accepted the recommendations of the Diamond review). For that reason it established an independent Further and Higher Education Student Support Review, chaired by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, which reported in November 2017. At the time this report was written the Scottish Government had not published its response to the recommendations.

The Scottish Funding Council has also been active in the promotion of fair access:

For 10 years from 2005/06 until 2015/16 it published an annual progress report Learning for All; Measures of Success. This has now been replaced by the more targeted SFC Report on Widening Access (September 2017), which reports specifically on progress towards meeting the targets set by the Commission for Widening Access and endorsed by the Scottish Government.

The Council also introduced two new funding initiatives:

  • Funding for regional articulation hubs for five years from 2008-09 to 2012-13, which was subsequently extended for an additional three years.
  • Additional funded places (727 for entrants from SIMD20/40 areas, and 1,020 for articulation). These places were available for four years, and have now been embedded in core numbers.

There are also several regional initiatives, designed to promote fair access. These include the Schools for Higher Education Programme ( SHEP), which was formed from Widening Access Regional Forums; the Scottish Wider Access Programme ( SWAP); and the Access to High Demand Professions Programme. Finally nearly every institution has also been active in developing their own fair access policies, focusing in particular on developing more systematic (and transparent?) processes with regard to contextual admissions by making adjusted offers available to applicants with specific characteristics (including, but not confined to, living in SIMD20 areas). These institutional efforts are equivalent to, and perhaps more intensive than, the measures taken by English institutions under the terms of their access agreements with the Office for Fair Access.

The overall impression is of a busy and creative policy environment that has led to a number of important initiatives, legislative and funding, and of fertile plans to promote fair access in institutions, which demonstrates strong commitment. At no time has there been evidence of complacency. There is a clear recognition at all levels - Parliament, Government, Funding Council, sectoral bodies and the institutions themselves - that, while the provision of tuition-free higher education to Scottish domiciled students may be a necessary condition for securing fair access, it is not a sufficient condition, and that 'free' higher education is the bedrock on which more active measures need to be built.

Progress to date

'Big picture'

Efforts to make access to higher education fairer must be seen in a wider social and economic context. Since the 1980s disparities of income, and wealth, have increased in the UK as they have in the United States (to a greater extent) and the rest of western Europe (to a lesser extent). There is no data to suggest that within the UK, Scotland has been an exception. This increasing inequality has been highlighted by the work of the French economist Thomas Picketty (2014). Increasing disparities in wealth and income have inevitably had an impact on life-chances and outcomes, including employment, health, housing and education. Almost as an antidote to this trend towards greater inequality a number of initiatives have been developed focused on social mobility, including the work of the Social Mobility Commission.

In addition there have been a number of trends within higher education itself, which may also have made fair access more difficult to achieve. These include the focus on producing and sustaining 'world-class' research universities and the growth of league tables and rankings. Neither is inherently hostile to fair access. But there are clearly risks that, unless these agendas are implemented with care, they may reinforce existing institutional habits and behaviours - and so, unintentionally, entrench existing patterns of discrimination.

In measuring progress towards meeting the Scottish Government's targets the impact of these 'big picture', and potentially countervailing, forces needs to be taken into account. Although their impact is difficult to measure, it is likely to be substantial. However, this cannot be used to justify resignation or complacency. Instead it demonstrates the challenges that are faced by the Scottish Government as it juggles with multiple objectives (research excellence, higher levels of school attainment, improved efficiency, greater flexibility of learner pathways as well as fair access to higher education) and by colleges and universities that find themselves in a similar position. The impact of these 'big picture' forces suggests that efforts to secure fair access need to be intensified; the more moderate policies that might once have served may no longer be adequate.

The current position

The most recently published data from the Scottish Funding Council shows that in 2015\16 14 per cent of full-time first-degree university entrants came from SIMD20 areas (Chart 2) and 0.8 per cent had a care experience background (Scottish Funding Council 2017). In the same year, 23 per cent of higher education entrants to colleges came from SIMD20 areas. Six years before, the proportions had been 12 per cent of entrants to full-time first-degree university courses and just under 20 per cent of higher education entrants to colleges ( CoWA, 2015). In other words significant but not spectacular progress has been made.

Chart 2: Percentage of full-time first degree university entrants from 20% most deprived areas ( SIMD20), 2007/08 to 2015/16

Source: Scottish Funding Council and Commission on Widening Access

Chart 2: Percentage of full-time first degree university entrants from 20% most deprived areas (SIMD20), 2007/08 to 2015/16

However, three important qualifications are needed:

  • First, as the SFC data shows, SIMD20 students are more likely to enter full-time higher education courses in colleges, mainly Higher Nationals, than full-time degree courses in universities. In the case of students from the least deprived SIMD quintile this is reversed: they are twice as likely to be on full-time degree courses at universities as on full-time higher education courses in colleges. The socioeconomic profile of university (and degree) and college (and HN) students is cause for concern, although any assumption that a college education (or a vocational course) is inferior to university education must be resisted and the choices of learners must be respected.
  • Second, there are significant variations between institutions. At West College Scotland 37 per cent of higher education students come from SIMD20 areas, compared with only 8.1 per cent at Borders College (Chart 3). Among universities percentages range from St Andrews' 4.5 per cent of full-time first degree entrants to the University of the West of Scotland's 25.4 per cent (Chart 4). Of greater concern is the fact that in 12 universities, mostly pre-1992 institutions, the proportion of SIMD20 entrants to full-time degree courses actually fell between 2014/15 and 2015\16. It would be wrong to draw over-categorical conclusions from this apparent back-sliding, because for many of the ancient universities the actual numbers are small so year-on-year percentage fluctuations are therefore inevitable and also because more up-to-date (but partial) figures from UCAS paint a more encouraging picture. According to the UCAS interim report on 2017 entry, overall admissions are up by 2 per cent in Scotland (and down by the same percentage in England) with the number of acceptances from SIMD20 areas up by over 10 per cent compared to the same stage in the 2016 cycle ( UCAS, 2017). However, the fact that in 2015/16 four universities were still more than two per cent below the 2021 10 per cent target for individual institutions suggests that substantially greater efforts will have to be made if this target is to be met.

Chart 3: Percentage of HE entrants from 20% most deprived areas ( SIMD20), by college, 2015/16

Source: Scottish Funding Council

Chart 3: Percentage of HE entrants from 20% most deprived areas (SIMD20), by college, 2015/16

Chart 4: Percentage of full-time first degree entrants from 20% most deprived areas ( SIMD20), by Higher Education Institution, 2015/16

Source: Scottish Funding Council

Chart 4: Percentage of full-time first degree entrants from 20% most deprived areas (SIMD20), by Higher Education Institution, 2015/16

  • Third, for both first-degree and higher education courses in colleges, participation by females is markedly higher across all SIMD quintiles and representation is slightly fairer across quintiles. The percentage of entrants from SIMD20 is almost two percentage points higher for females on degree courses (15.6 as opposed to 13.7 per cent) and almost four percentage points higher for female college students on higher education courses (29.9 as opposed to 25.1 per cent). This reflects the fact that most of the subject areas where SIMD20 entrants (both male and female) are well represented are also subjects with high percentages of female entrants, including Subjects Allied to Medicine, Biological Sciences, Social Sciences and Business (Chart 5). This may suggest that these subjects have generally been more accessible, or indicate that patterns of social class and gender discrimination are related in complex ways.

Chart 5: Number of full-time first degree university entrants from 20% most deprived areas ( SIMD20), by subject and gender, 2015/16

Source: Secondary analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency ( HESA) data

Chart 5: Number of full-time first degree university entrants from 20% most deprived areas (SIMD20), by subject and gender, 2015/16

Measuring progress

There has been a lively debate about Scotland's progress towards fair access, which I welcome. Even when views expressed are contrary to my own, or critical of the Scottish Government's higher education funding and fair access policies, the debate makes a positive contribution to a better understanding of the challenges of achieving fairer access.

The debate has been informed by a range of data and evidence sources. These sources include the SFC data which has just been discussed, which is the most complete, but also UCAS statistics and comparative (in particular, Anglo-Scottish) data about the rate at which the under-representation of students from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds has been decreasing. Both the latter data sources have weaknesses. Not all higher education students apply through UCAS, and this is more an issue in Scotland than in England. As a result cross-border comparisons of first-degree university students are (largely but not entirely) consistent but many HN and other non-degree students in colleges are not covered. In England disadvantaged students are defined in terms of residence in POLAR low participation areas, while in Scotland SIMD is the relevant metric. Coverage of other UK-wide measures of deprivation, such as eligibility for school meals or having non-graduate parents, may also be inconsistent and incomplete, although some institutions use these measures in making adjusted offers. On some important issues, such as the extent to which the drive to recruit more SIMD20 students has displaced other students, the available data is suggestive rather than conclusive.

There have been claims that faster progress has been made towards fair access in England than in Scotland. However, these often fail to recognise that Scotland is starting from a different base-line because the overall HE participation rate is significantly higher. Another source of confusion is that comparisons are generally confined to universities, something which automatically favours England and Wales simply because more of their higher education students are enrolled in universities. In England a higher proportion of students are enrolled in 'post-1992' universities with a stronger commitment to widening participation than 'pre-1992' universities - but that is counterbalanced by the larger proportion of higher education students in colleges in Scotland. Like is not being compared with like. If proper account could be taken of both these differences - the more substantial role of Scottish colleges in providing higher education, and the different student shares between 'pre-1992' and 'post-1992' universities in Scotland and England - any differences in progress towards fair access would likely disappear (and, arguably, would be reversed).


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