Maintaining the Momentum Towards Fair Access: annual report 2022

The fifth annual report of the Commissioner for Fair Access concludes that all indicators on the fair access scoreboard are flashing green, but Professor Scott warns that maintaining momentum could become more difficult following the damage done by interrupted schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Summary and Recommendations

Access scorecard

All the fair access indicators are flashing green, despite the impact of Covid-19:

  • There are more entrants from the 20 percent most deprived communities in Scotland (SIMD20) than ever before.
  • They make up an increasing proportion of all entrants to higher education (and to first-degree courses). The Government's interim target of 16-per-cent of entrants from SIMD20 areas in 2021 has been comfortably exceeded.
  • Among younger applicants (18-year-old and younger) for 2022 entry there has been a small increase, despite the fact that overall applicants are down.
  • The gap between the most and least deprived (SIMD20 and SIMD80) in terms of positive destinations after leaving school, and of school leavers with at least one level-6 pass, had continued to narrow.
  • The gap between SIMD20 and SIMD80 continuation rates is half what it was five years ago, demonstrating once again that fair access does not threaten academic standards.
  • More Scottish domiciled first-degree entrants to Scottish HEIs were educated in State schools than in the UK as a whole - 94 compared with 92 percent.

But these figures refer to 2020-21, the first academic year impacted by Covid-19. Most entrants were already on track for entry to higher education. The full impact of interrupted schooling, digital poverty, financial hardship and other factors, which were all worse in more deprived communities, has not shown up in the figures yet. So smooth progress towards the next milestone - 18 percent of SIMD20 entrants by 2026 - cannot be taken for granted.

Recommendation 1

Although the success of institutions in meeting the 2021 target ahead of schedule might suggest the 2026 target of 18 percent of SIMD20 entrants could either be raised or brought forward (as the Commission on Widening Access had envisaged), this should not be considered before the medium and long-term impact of Covid-19 can be properly assessed.

SIMD and other indicators

Progress towards meeting national targets is measured in terms of SIMD, an area-based indicator that measures multiple forms of deprivation. This reliance on SIMD has been criticised by, among others, Universities Scotland, it has been suggested SIMD should be complemented, or replaced, by a measure of individual disadvantage, such as Free School Meals.

Institutions use a wide range of indicators to identify disadvantaged applicants in addition to SIMD, including FSMs, first-in-family, care experience or attendance at a low-progression school or participation in access or bridging courses. But institutions continue to be held to account in terms of SIMD20 targets.

The objections to SIMD are that it produces false-positives and false-negatives (students who are not deprived but live in deprived areas, and the reverse); that it has a big-city anti-small town and rural bias; and that it fails to 'stretch' the ambitions of most institutions because they have already met the 10-percent SIMD20 target.

All measures, area and individual, have limitations. Alternative area-based measure to SIMD, such as POLAR4 and an experimental HESA indicator, focus on more limited factors. FSMs can only measure take up not eligibility. Also higher education participation rates vary widely among FSM students and tend to reflect the general level of ambition in their communities.

Institutions in the north east - the University of Aberdeen, Robert Gordon University and North East Scotland College - tend to underperform in terms of SIMD20 entrants. This reflects the limited pool of potential SIMD20 applicants in the surrounding areas. To meet their targets they need to recruit most of their SIMD20 from elsewhere in Scotland.

Because the current 10 per cent of SIMD entrants for individual institutions is no longer effective as many institutions already exceed it, there are two options - to increase it to at least 15 percent; or to allow institutions to set their own targets using a basket of measures. On balance the latter is better, provided these targets are strictly policed by the SFC in outcome agreements.

Nationally the fair access target is still best expressed in terms of SIMD. The responsibility of institutions is not simply to recruit limited numbers of talented students from deprived backgrounds, but to contribute to tackling multiple forms of deeply entrenched deprivation.

Recommendation 2

National targets on fair access should continue to be defined in terms of SIMD. But institutional SIMD targets are no longer fit-for-purpose. Instead institutions should be able to use their own basket of measures to determine their own targets. But these new targets should be strictly policed by the SFC through outcome agreements.

Lessons from elsewhere

Scotland continues to lead the UK nations in terms of fair access to higher education. But important changes have taken elsewhere from which lessons can be learnt.


The Welsh Government is attempting to build a tertiary education and training system embracing higher and further education, on-the-job training and community adult education. It is establishing a Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) to achieve this.

This effort is similar to, but goes beyond, the Learning Journey initiative in Scotland which so far has produced limited results. The Scottish 'tertiary' system remains fragmented, with HEIs and colleges treated separately despite both being funded by the SFC, and other agencies responsible for training and skills. Learners from deprived backgrounds would benefit from less fragmentation and better coordination if the Welsh model was followed.

Recommendation 3

In taking forward the SFC sustainability review, and in future considerations of the structure of Scottish Government agencies and their responsibilities, attention should be paid to the current work of the Welsh Government in promoting an integrated system of tertiary education embracing higher education (and university research), further education, on-the-job training and community adult education.


In England the approach to access and participation is being radically revised, emphasising work in schools to raise attainment levels (rather than developing variable admissions) and defining 'success' predominantly in terms of 'good' (ie graduate-level professional) jobs (at the expense of wider - non-material - individual and social benefits).

This approach has little to offer Scotland. Although outreach work in schools is crucial, contextual admissions are necessary to produce genuine equality of opportunity, while access to well-paid professional jobs is not only dependent on academic achievement, but reflects wider patterns of class and privilege.

Other issues

Student numbers and 'displacement'

Despite the pressure on the Scottish Government's budget, it is essential to provide an adequate number of (properly) funded places in higher education. Failure to do this, or perception of failure, could lead to an increase in competition for places. This could revive fears that better qualified (although more advantaged) students were being 'displaced' by SIMD20 entrants. Justified or not, these fears act as a drag on efforts to achieve fair access.

Recommendation 4

The Scottish Government should commit to providing an adequate number of (fully) funded places in higher education to reduce the possibility that progress towards fair access for the most deprived students might increase competition for places among other social groups.

Scottish Framework for Fair Access

A Framework for Fair Access to encourage evaluation of good practice was a key recommendation of the Commission on Widening Access. A Framework was successfully established three years ago, with two pillars - a web-based toolkit and support for a network of access and participation practitioners. But it has had to survive on hand-to-mouth funding. Sustainable funding is essential if it is to achieve its full potential.

Recommendation 5

Sustainable funding should be provided for the Scottish Framework for Fair Access, to enable development of the web-based toolkit on good practice and to strengthen the community of access and participation practitioners.


Smooth articulation between (Higher Nationals) HNs and degree is crucial to achieving fair access because over 40 percent of SIMD20 entrants to university come via the college route. It is also key to building a comprehensive integrated and multi-pathway tertiary education system. Yet progress towards meeting the SFC's target that 75 percent of HN qualifiers entering degree programmes should receive advanced standing has been disappointing. A step-change is needed.

Recommendation 6

The Scottish Funding Council should take more decisive action to enforce its 75-per-cent target for HN students moving to degree courses to receive advanced standing, and to set student number targets for the recruitment of HN (and other articulating) students, in its negotiation of outcome agreements with universities.

School reforms

The OECD report last year on the Curriculum for Excellence, and the recent report on school reforms by Professor Kenneth Muir, raise important issues for higher education. Any narrowing of the attainment gap in schools as a result of the better fit between curriculum and assessment makes it easier to achieve fair access. Although schools have other broader purposes than preparing students for higher education entrance, it is important that levels of subject knowledge are adequate to allow students to succeed on degree courses.




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