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.

Access Scorecard

Almost every indicator - statistics on higher education students last year (2020-21), school attainment and school lever destinations, data on applications for 2022 entry - suggests that sustained progress continues to be made towards achieving the Government's ambitions for fair access. On a scoreboard of progress the indicators are all coloured green.

However, these indicators have been affected, to a greater or lesser degree, by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is possible that currently they reflect the 'up-sides' of that impact - the improved Higher and Advanced Higher results as a result of the replacement of formal examinations by teacher assessed grades, and the provision of extra higher education places to reflect the greater number of qualified applicants. The 'down-sides' of Covid-19 may become more apparent in future years. They include the differential impact of disrupted schooling, which has been worse in more deprived communities, 'digital poverty' and its impact on online learning and increasing financial hardship. The likely impact of the cost-of-living crisis, mentioned in the introduction, is potentially an additional 'down-side' factor.

Although this does not diminish satisfaction with the impressive progress that has been made, it may justify adding a note of caution. Meeting the 2026 interim target and the 2030 final target will require renewed commitment.

1. Access to higher education

National picture

There are several sets of statistics with different bases - full-time first-degree, full-time undergraduate, all undergraduate, all students in higher education (and first-year entrants or all-years) - which naturally produce different figures. This can lead to some confusion. But they all point in the same direction; a sustained increase in the number and proportion of SIMD20 students.

For example, the number of first-year students from SIMD20 areas on all undergraduate courses in universities hit an all-time record in 2020-21 - 5,850. This represented an increase of 550 students compared with the previous year and 640 compared with the year before. This remarkable rate of increase is partly explained by the significant increase in the total number of first-year students, as has already been noted. But, even when that overall increase in places is taken into account, there has been a significant increase in the SIMD20 first-year entrants in percentage terms - 16.2 percent (exceeding the 2021 interim target) compared with 16.1 in 2019-20 and 15.5 in 2018-19. In each case 'unknowns' have been removed, on the assumption they are randomly distributed. This means that in the five years since the publication of the Commission on Widening Access' report the number of SIMD20 first-year students has increased by 1590, and the percentage has risen from 13.5 to 16.2 percent on all undergraduate courses.

If all undergraduate students are included, including those in colleges, the proportion of SIMD20 students is even more impressive - 19.6 percent. This underlines the wider social base from which colleges draw their students - and also the key role played by the college route in recruiting SIMD20 students to universities.

The interim targets refer to full-time first-degree students. If only full-time first-degree Scottish domiciled students in universities are considered, the progress has been also more impressive. In the latest year for which figures are available, 2020-21, 16.7 percent of first-year first-degree students are from SIMD20 areas - or 5,515. This represents an increase from 16.4 percent, or 545 students, over the previous year, 2019-20, and 1,540 students over the five-year period. The share of SIMD20 first-year first-degree entrants has increased over the same period from 13.8 to 16.7 percent. By any standards that represents sustained progress towards achieving fair access.

However, as has already been indicated, it is necessary to add a health warning. All these figures apply to 2020-21, in other words, the last not the current academic year. This was also the first year in which admissions to higher education took place against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, although initial applications had been made in the autumn of 2019 before it had been identified. Because school examinations were replaced by teacher assessed grades in summer 2020 (and again last year) and the number of available places in higher education was increased to take account of the higher grades awarded, year-to-year comparisons are more difficult to make. The same difficulty will also apply when the figures for 2021-22, the second 'Covid year', are published early next year.

The most up-to-date figures from UCAS covering the number of applicants for 2022 entry received by the January deadline, a small number of whom of course may defer entry, offer a glimpse into the future. These show an 11-per-cent decrease in the number of SIMD20 applicants - from 8,070 in 2021 to 7,180. It is worth noting these figures include SIMD20 applicants to all UK universities, although the great majority will apply to Scottish institutions, so there is unlikely to be much difference. However, this mirrors the overall decrease in the number of all applicants, which are generally assumed to have been inflated in the case of applicants in 2021 by the impact of Covid-19 (increased uncertainty and fewer jobs). So this is another example of the difficulty of making year-on-year comparisons.

A more hopeful sign is that, if younger applicants (18 and 17 year olds) only are considered, there has been a 7 percent increase in SIMD20 applicants, compared with 2 percent for all applicants. This is the largest increase of all SIMD quintiles. At this stage it is difficult to offer a definitive explanation for this. But one possible reason may be that improved examination outcomes as a result of teacher assessed grades have given young people more confidence to apply. But, if that has been an influential factor, the return of formal examinations - and lower grades? - could then act as a disincentive.

Institutional performance

Six higher education institutions saw reductions in their proportion of SIMD20 undergraduate entrants between 2019-20 and 2020-21 - Aberdeen (9.0 to 7.8 percent), University of the Highlands and Islands (8.3 to 7.5), Dundee (15.9 to 15.8), Napier (14.7 to 12.1), Edinburgh (10.2 to 8.7), Queen Margaret (13.4 to 12.2) and St Andrews (9.6 to 9.3). The remaining 13, including the Open University, all saw increases. Five have proportions of more than 20 percent - University of the West of Scotland (28.3), Glasgow School of Art (24.2), Glasgow Caledonian (22.2), the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (21.6) and Strathclyde (20.9).

The fact that the institutions which have struggled to recruit SIMD20 students are all in the east of Scotland, and the most successful institutions are all in the west of Scotland may be attributable in part to the distribution of SIMD20 areas. The suitability of SIMD as the only measure of progress towards fair access is discussed in the next section of this report. However, the significance of year-on-year percentage changes of SIMD20 students should not be exaggerated because the actual numbers are often small and also because the past two Covid-affected years have been exceptional making comparisons with earlier years more difficult.

2. Graduate success: continuation and completion

The most recent figures suggest that any fears that SIMD20 entrants, who may have been admitted with lower Higher grades, are significantly more likely to drop out after their first year continue to be misplaced. Typically their continuation rate is between 3 and 4 percent less than for all students. This gap has remained constant over the past five years. Fair access is not a threat to academic standards.

In 2020-21 90.2 percent of SIMD20 entrants in the previous year continued into the second year, compared with 93.5 percent of all 2019-20 entrants. This is a tribute to the hard work of universities in supporting students from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds - academically, socially and financially. It is important to emphasise that, by international standards, a continuation rate of more than 90 percent is exceptionally high. The lowest continuation rate was at the University of the Highlands and Islands was still 80.3 percent. At Aberdeen and St Andrews it was 95.2 and 95.9 percent respectively. In fact with such high continuation rates it even could be argued that, given the many different reasons why students drop out, greater risks could be taken by institutions in terms of admitting students with lower entry qualifications but with the motivation and potential to succeed.

3. Care experience

The guarantee of places to care-experienced applicants who met minimum entry requirements (MERs), which was made by Universities Scotland in 2019, has had a positive effect on recruitment. Five years ago (2015-16) there were only 445 undergraduates (in both colleges and universities) who came from a care experience background. This was only 0.5 percent of all undergraduates. By 2019-20 this percentage increased more than three times to 1.7 percent, or 1470 students. In the most recent year, 2020-21, it has increased again to 1.9 percent (1,685 students).

4. School attainment and destinations

There is a lively debate about the 'attainment gap' in schools. But data on school attainment and the destinations of school leavers are broadly consistent with this pattern of steady progress towards fair(er) access for higher education entrants. The percentage of school leavers with a positive destination increased for all SIMD quintiles in 2020-21. 92.8 percent of SIMD20 leavers had a positive destination compared with 97.6 percent of SIMD80 leavers - a gap of 4.8 percentage points between the most and the least deprived quintiles. Over the last decade there has been a steady rise in the percentage of all school leavers with a positive destination, and also a steady narrowing of the gap between SIMD20 and SIMD80 leavers. Ten years ago only 82.8 percent of SIMD20 leavers had a positive destination, and the gap between them and SIMD80 leavers was more than twice as wide.

There has been a similar improvement in examination outcomes. Over the past decade (2011-12 compared with 2020-21) the proportion of SIMD20 leavers with at least one SCQF Level 6 pass has increased from 30.2 percent to 49.5 percent. Over the same period the proportion of SIMD80 leavers with the same level of attainment also increased, but more slowly - from 75.2 percent to 83.9 percent. The gap between the two has narrowed from 44.9 percent to 34.4 percent difference.

However, in the case of entry to higher education the gap remains wide. Less than a third of SIMD20 leavers (29.2 percent) went on to higher education, compared with two-thirds (65.1 percent) of SIMD80 leavers - a difference of 35.9 percentage points. In the case of further education the positions were reversed. A third of SIMD20 leavers (33.8 percent) went on further education, compared with only 13 percent of SIMD80 leavers. This alignment between post-school destinations and social class is a reminder of how deeply entrenched inequality of opportunities remain. Despite the progress that has been made, much work remains to be done.

5. Disability

In the latest year for which figures are available (2020-21) 27,700 of the 149,655 UK domiciled first-degree students had a known disability - or 18.5 percent. That was an increase of almost 3,000 over the previous year. In the five years since 2016-17 the number of students with a known disability increased from 19,205 to 27,700. This reflects the greater awareness, and increasing diagnosis, of a wider range of disability - for example, dyslexia. In HESA statistics eight different forms of disability are identified.

However, a different picture emerges when the number of full-time UK domiciled first-degree students in Scottish universities who receive Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) is considered - 6,065, a much lower figure and 4.7 percent of the total, down from the 5.2 percent in the previous year. But this percentage is consistent with the trend. In earlier years the percentage was between 4 and 5 percent. The disparity between the number of students with a known disability and the number receiving DSA suggests that the eligibility criteria for the latter are too narrow, and may no longer reflect our current understanding of disability. It may also reflect patchy take-up even among those who are eligible. Also changes in the administrative arrangements for DSA awards in Scotland may have led to under-reporting, with the Open University in Scotland particularly affected.

No institutional breakdown by institution of all students with a known disability is publicly available. However, there is a breakdown by institution of students receiving DSA. The institutions with the highest percentage of students receiving DSA are Glasgow School of Art (16.1 percent compared with a benchmark of 9.1 percent) and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (11.6 percent compared with 9.3 percent). This probably reflects the greater willingness to admit disabled students in the creative and performing arts, which in turn reflects a wider acceptance to recruit disabled entrants to these professions. The institutions with the lowest percentage of students receiving DSA are also in the west of Scotland - The University of the West of Scotland (1.1 percent compared with a benchmark of 7.2 percent), Glasgow Caledonian (2.2 percent compared with a benchmark of 6.6 percent) and Strathclyde (2.9 percent compared with a benchmark of 5.9 percent). The reasons for these outliers are less clear, but probably include subject mix, take-up and even record keeping. Most other institutions cluster round the national average. The reported figure for UWS looks particularly suspect because the university recruits a large number of older students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

6. Private and State Schools

The balance of entrants educated in State and private school is a useful proxy for how equitable access to institutions is in terms of social class. The percentage of UK first-degree students in Scottish higher education institutions from State schools is 88.7, which is lower than the UK average (90.2 percent). It is also lower than two years before (2018-19), when the percentage was 89.3 percent. The gap between the Scottish and UK figures has also doubled over the two-year period from 0.7 to 1.5 percent. However, if only Scottish domiciled students are counted, a different picture emerges. Ninety-four percent of first-degree students are from State schools compared with 92 percent among all first-degree students across the UK. The 2-per-cent gap has remained unchanged over the two-year period.

Two universities stand out in terms of the low percentage of all their first-degree students (ie UK not just Scottish domiciled) who were educated in State schools - St Andrews (63.1 percent well adrift of the benchmark of 77.1 percent) and Edinburgh (64.5 percent compared with the benchmark of 80.5 percent). The main, but not only, reason for these outliers with high percentage of private school educated students is that both universities recruit substantial numbers of students from the rest of the United Kingdom, many of whom come from prosperous English families and attended private schools.

At the other end of the range six universities recruit more than 95 percent of their students from State schools - all but one are post-1992 universities. They are University of the West of Scotland (98.9 percent), Queen Margaret University (97 percent), University of the Highlands and Islands (98.4), Glasgow Caledonian (96.9 percent), Abertay (95.6 percent) and, the only pre-1992 university, Stirling (95.3 percent).

7. Socio-economic classification and parental education

The intractability of social class differences in access to higher education is demonstrated by the almost unchanged shares of Scottish domiciled students from particular occupational groups. 51 percent of students still come from the two highest socio-economic classifications - higher and lower managerial and professional occupations - compared with only 21 percent from the two lowest semi-routine and routine occupations. This gap has remained virtually unchanged over the past five years, since the Commission on Widening Access reported, although this takes no account of the changes in the size of different occupational groups.

This impression of immobility, or only glacial change, is reinforced by the data on parental education. The proportion of students whose parents themselves have experienced higher education only fell by a single percentage point over the five-year period between 2016-17 and 2020-21. If the increasing proportion of graduates in the overall population - as a result of past expansion - is taken into account, this slight shift becomes more significant.

8. Ethnicity

The proportion of first-year students from black and other minority ethnic groups is much lower in Scotland than in the UK as a whole. In Scotland nine out of 10 are white (91 percent) compared with one in three (74 percent). In both Scotland and the whole of the UK the next largest group is students of Asian origin - 7 and 14 percent respectively. This is broadly in line with the different proportions of white and other ethnic groups in the total populations of Scotland and the UK. It underlines the dominance of socio-economic class as the main determinant of unequal access to higher education in Scotland.

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.



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