Higher education - re-committing to Fair Access - a plan for recovery: annual report 2021

The fourth annual report of the Commissioner for Fair Access to higher education celebrates the progress that has been made and warns about the impact of the COVID-19 emergency, and the resulting setback to achieving fair access.

Executive Summary


  • Over the past five years very welcome progress has been made towards meeting the Government's fair access targets. The 2021 interim target, that 16 per cent of entrants should come from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland, has been achieved ahead of time. But, even before the arrival of Covid-19, there were signs that the rate of progress was slowing. Even then it was becoming clear that the 'last mile(s)' would be the most difficult – towards the next interim target, 18 per cent of entrants from SIMD20 areas in 2026, and the final target of 20 per cent from SIMD20 in 2030.
  • There are three immediate causes for concern:

1. The progress that has been made may have led to feelings of complacency. A general belief has developed that Scotland has a good story to tell on fair access, which is largely but not wholly true, which in turn may have led on to another belief, that the (main) job has been done. In fact the hardest work lies ahead.

2. The impact of the Covid-19 emergency has been greatest on the most deprived communities and those who live in them. The target groups for fair access have suffered most – in terms of school disruptions, lost (or furloughed) jobs, economic scarring, financial hardship, digital poverty. At the same time the outreach activities of universities have been severely constrained.

3. The efforts of Government have been focused on post-Covid recovery. This has strengthened the belief that the major task of further and higher education is to promote economic development anyway. Although fair access clearly makes a major contribution to economic development, by exploiting the potential of all the people, its importance can only be fully appreciated by focusing on social justice.

Commission on Widening Access

  • The Commission on Widening Access (COWA) published its final report five years ago. That report has provided a template for success, acting as the primary focus for realising the First Minister's ambition that a fifth of university places should go those from the most deprived quintile of Scotland's population.
  • The main COWA recommendations have been successfully implemented over the past five years on access targets, access thresholds (or minimum entry requirements) and a guarantee of places for care-experienced applicants. Gaps remain on student funding, the use of finer-grain metrics to identify disadvantaged students and the wider development of flexible pathways in a tertiary education system, in particular better recognition of the achievements of HN students who enter degree courses.
  • Many of the COWA recommendations were addressed to the Government and the SFC, and were rather top-down, even dirigiste, in tone. In the event much of the running has been made by colleges and universities with innovative bottom-up initiatives and a strong sense of ownership of the access agenda. Although welcome in all other respects, this balance has perhaps made it more difficult for the SFC to secure a clear strategic, as opposed to operational, focus.

The continuing impact of Covid

  • The attainment gap, which has proved to be difficult to narrow, could widen again as young learners, especially in schools that have suffered the greatest disruption, struggle to make up for 'lost time', both in terms of knowledge and skills but also perhaps motivation. As a result the pool of qualified SIMD20 applicants might shrink, making it more difficult for universities to meet the 2026, and 2030, targets. The effects on school progress will not be a time-limited emergency but be felt for several years ahead.
  • Examination grades, used as benchmarks for entry to universities, have been replaced by teacher-assessed grades (which, of course may be more accurate indicators of potential). The normal pattern of university admissions will be disturbed, with more higher grades, although any uplift will fail to compensate for the disproportionate 'lost time' in schooling suffered by young people from more deprived backgrounds. This uncertainty will also affect the careful calibration of minimum entry requirements, justifying their more ambitious use.
  • The shape of the next academic year will continue to be affected by the aftermath of the Covid-19 emergency. A full return to 'normal' will be impossible with social distancing and other restrictions on campus life being maintained. At the same time the pivot to online learning is unlikely ever to be fully reversed. Students from more socially deprived backgrounds will suffer most from any reduction in the social experience of being on campus and interactions with their peers, in addition to continuing digital poverty, financial hardship and worse mental health.

Other issues

  • Proposals to reform university admissions to introduce a post-qualification admissions (or offers) system are being driven by English concerns but could be applied across the UK. They could lead to unintended, and negative, consequences for admissions in Scotland. In particular they could undermine the successful programmes of summer schools and other forms of engagement adopted by universities to attract more applicants from socially deprived backgrounds.
  • The Framework for Fair Access, which was recommended in the COWA report and identified as a 'foundational' recommendation by the Government, has yet to be placed on a secure and sustainable footing. With greater certainty both pillars of the Framework – the toolkit of good practice – and Scotland's Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP) – will be able to fulfil their potential.


Email: karen.frew@gov.scot

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