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.

1. Progress Report


The Covid-19 pandemic, and the public health and other measures taken to combat it, have already had an adverse effect on progress towards fair access to higher education, and this adverse effect is likely to increase in the absence of sustained corrective measures. However, that adverse effect is difficult to measure. In terms of the available data, the full impact of Covid-19 has yet to become clear – for two reasons.

First, the most up-to-date statistics are for the 2019-20 academic year which was more than half over before the pandemic struck, and the cycle of applications, acceptances and enrolment was already complete. At this stage detailed data is not available for the current academic year, 2020-21, which has been most effected by Covid.

Secondly, year-on-year comparisons will be difficult to make because of the large increase in the number of qualified applicants, following the cancellation of Higher (and Advanced Higher) examinations last summer and again this summer and their replacement by teacher-assessed grades. The most recent data, looking forward to the next academic year, 2021-22, is provided by the UCAS figures on applications made by the January 2021 deadline.

For these reasons it has become more difficult to assess progress towards meeting the targets recommended by the Commission on Widening Access five years ago and agreed by the Government – that by 2021 16 per cent of students of full-time first-degree entrants (and at least 10 per cent in each Higher Education Institution) should come from SIMD20, the most socially deprived quintile; 18 per cent by 2026; and 20 per cent of all entrants to higher education (in other words, their fair share) by 2030.

The Commission believed that the targets it recommended should be reviewed at some stage in the process, perhaps at a mid point. It specifically recommended that the 10 per cent SIMD20 intake threshold should be looked at in 2022 (see below). Two revisions are worth very serious consideration:

  • The first is to make greater use of Free School Meals (FSM) uptake alongside, not as a replacement for, SIMD as a key measure of progress. This would be strongly supported by the universities, and it would give a more accurate picture of universities' record on addressing fair access especially in remote and rural areas. This first revision is considered in greater detail in the next section of this report.
  • The second is to develop a target for SIMD40 entrants, in addition to the primary SIMD20 measure. Many universes already consider entrants from both quintiles in measuring their progress. Having this double measure would also ensure that applicants from communities in the second most deprived quintile do not get squeezed between SIMD20 applicants and applicants from more socially advantaged communities.

Social deprivation and care experience

Overall the proportion of Scottish domiciled first-degree university entrants from the most deprived social quintile, SIMD20, increased from 15.9 per cent in 2018-19 to 16.4 per cent in 2019-20, according to the Scottish Funding Council's Report on Widening Access (SFC 2021). Statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency are broadly consistent (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/whos-in-he). According to HESA 16.2 per cent of first-year full-time first-degree Scottish domiciled students in 2019-20 came from SIMD20 areas compared with 15.8 the previous year. The difference between the SFC and HESA figures is explained by the fact that the former removes 'unknowns', assuming that the missing postcode data is randomly distributed across SIMD quintiles. The equivalent figures for students from the most advantaged social quintile, SIMD80, increased marginally from 27.8 to 27.9 (both rounded to 28 per cent in the published figures).

In other words in university admissions SIMD20 entrants are 'under-represented' by just under 4 percentage points while those from SIMD80 are 'over-represented' by 8 percentage points. Or, to put it another way, first-year first-degree entrants are just under twice (1.75 times) as likely to come from SIMD80 as SIMD20 areas. Without taking into account the actual school populations in the most deprived and the least deprived social quintiles these are only approximate comparisons. But they give some idea of the scale of the access gap in university admissions – and, therefore, a sense of the challenges still facing fair access. Fair access is still far from being achieved. Using another measure, the Socio-Economic Classification, which is divided into eight occupational groups, more than half of all higher education students in Scottish institutions – and 47 per cent of Scottish domiciled first-year students – still come from the top two groups.

There is also welcome news about participation rates among the care-experienced. Although the numbers remain very low – only 370 full-time first-degree entrants in 2019-20 – the percentage has more than doubled over the past seven years, from 0.5 to 1.2 per cent. On most years the retention rate for care-experienced students lagged behind that for all students and for SIMD20 students, although between 2017-18 and 2018-19 it was higher than both (the small numbers inevitably produce greater volatility in percentage shares). It would be reasonable to expect that the universities' guarantee of a place for all care-experienced applicants who meet minimum entry requirements would further increase both numbers and percentage shares.

There appear to be two messages in the latest figures:

  • First, the gap between first-year and all-years figures – 16 per cent of first years compared with 14 per cent overall – is evidence of the momentum towards fairer access that has been achieved, and a measure of the progress that has been made over the past five years. This progress is apparent in both the HESA and UCAS figures (which are calculated in different ways and over different periods). According to HESA between 2014-15 and 2019-20 the proportion of SIMD20 entrants increased from 14 to 16 per cent. According to the UCAS end-of-cycle figures between 2016 and 2020 the proportion increased from 13.7 to 15.7.
  • The second message is that in the most recent year for which official data is available – the 2020 end-of-cycle figures in the case of UCAS, 2019-20 in the case of HESA and the SFC's Report on Widening Access – progress towards fair access has recently slowed. The largest gain was made between 2016-17 and 2017-18 – almost two percentage points, increase in the SIMD20 share (1.8 per cent) compared with half that between 2018-19 and 2019-20 in the most recent figures. This pattern can be explained in two ways: first, that the work of the Commission on Widening Access (see below) had a galvanising effect; and, secondly, that progress was bound to become more difficult as higher education moved closer to genuine equality of opportunity (the last miles are always more difficult). This note of caution is important because, as has already been said, all these figures effectively predate the Covid-19 emergency. We will have to wait until early next year before figures are published that reflect the impact of the pandemic on the social make-up of students.

As the increase in the SIMD20 share of first-year entrants had only been gradual before Covid-19 struck, it would not be unreasonable to assume that a continuation of this trend of gradual improvement could be a best-case scenario given the potential setback represented by the Covid-19 emergency. Other UCAS figures for the number of applications received by January 2021 for entry in the next academic year, 2020-21, offer a glimpse into the future. They largely confirm the impression of a lessening of momentum towards fair access. Overall applicants have increased by 16 per cent, from 42,530 to 49,360. (The number of applications, of course, is much higher.) But SIMD20 applicants have increased by slightly less – 15 per cent, although SIMD40 applicants (from the next most deprived quintile) did increase by 19 per cent (https://www.ucas.com/data-and-analysis/undergraduate-statistics-and-reports/ucas-undergraduate-releases/applicant-releases-2021/2021-cycle-applicant-figures-january-deadline). However, these figures come with a health warning. These are applications by the January deadline, not total applications, and only the first stage in the long applications-offers-acceptances pipeline. Also not all applications are made through UCAS. They are also Scottish applicants to all UK HEIs.

Figures for retention and qualifiers too support the impression that progress has been sticky.

  • The gap between the overall retention rate and the retention rate for SIMD20 students in universities has remained constant. But the SIMD20 rate declined from a peak of 89.4 per cent in 2016-17 to 87.5 per cent in 2018-19, the most recent year for which figures are available. However, it is important to emphasise that the gap between overall retention and SIMD20 retention rates is only 3 per cent, and that both figures are very high by international standards. Overall, Scottish universities do not have an 'efficiency problem'. Nor is there any evidence that widening access has led to significantly lower retention.
  • The proportion of SIMD20 qualifiers, inevitably, is lower than the proportion of SIMD20 entrants. Of greater concern perhaps is that for full-time first-degree graduates it declined by almost a full percentage point between 2018-19 (13.9 per cent) and 2019-20 (13 per cent). For all SIMD20 undergraduates there was actually an increase from 18.5 to 19 per cent. The reason for this increase was the improved performance of colleges, which more than compensated for the small decline in universities. This is evidence of the key contribution made by colleges to Scotland's overall higher education participation rate compared with other UK nations in general, and in particular to fair access.

All these figures suggest both good news and not-so-good news. The good news is that the 2021 interim target has been achieved, a year ahead of schedule. This reflects the influence of the targets set by Commission for Widening Access and accepted by the Government and also the commitment of institutions to fair access. The not-so-good news is that there must now be significant uncertainty about whether the momentum necessary to achieve the 2026 interim target of 18 per cent of SIMD20 full-time first-degree entrants is being sustained in the light of the negative consequences of the Covid-19 emergency. This target, and even the final target of 20 per cent of all entrants to higher education at the end of the decade, a truly level playing field, could be under threat if there is not a re-commitment to the central importance of fair access among the priorities for higher education by all the major players – Government, Funding Council, sector bodies and institutions.

Institutional performance

In 2019-20 only two universities recruited fewer than 10 per cent of entrants from SIMD20 areas, the threshold for individual universities recommended by the Commission on Widening Access (see below) and endorsed by the Government. The Commission further recommended that by 2022, next year, the Government should consider raising that threshold, although no action has yet been taken to begin this process of consideration.

Both universities are in Aberdeen. In terms of recruiting SIMD20 students onto full-time first-degree courses the University of Aberdeen registered the largest percentage increase between 2018-19 and 2019-20, almost doubling its share from just 4.4 to 8.6 per cent. However, the numbers remain low, an increase from just 60 to 125 students, and the university still has one of the lowest share of SIMD20 students among Scotland's universities. Its fellow Aberdeen institution, Robert Gordon University registered an actual decline, from 6.7 to 5.2 per cent and actually recruited fewer SIMD20 students onto full-time first-degree courses than Aberdeen despite being a so-called 'post-1992' university. It now has the lowest proportion of SIMD20 entrants among Scotland's universities. The standard explanation for the comparatively poor performance of the two Aberdeen institutions is that SIMD does not capture the proper extent of social deprivation outside the central belt. North East Scotland College also has a comparatively low share of SIMD20 students, which supports this explanation.

But it is important not to treat doubts about the use of SIMD for measuring progress towards fair access as a permanent opt-out or alibi. Disappointingly Stirling, which is firmly in the central belt, also registered a decline in SIMD20 students, from 14.4 to 13.1 per cent. St Andrews saw a small percentage increase. The actual number of SIMD20 students was the same – 75 – but the overall intake of (Scottish domiciled) students fell slightly. At the other end of the spectrum the University of the West of Scotland again increased its share of SIMD20 students, who made up almost a third of full-time first-degree entrants in 2019-20. In most other universities the share of SIMD20 entrants increased slightly or stayed the same over these two years. But it is important to emphasise these figures are for 2019-20, before any adverse effects of the Covid-19 emergency were properly felt.

Comparisons between the performance of institutions in terms of fair access need to be treated with caution. In some cases the numbers of SIMD entrants are small, either because the universities themselves do not have large numbers of students so small changes in numbers can produce significant percentage shifts, or because they have traditionally recruited many of their students from more socially advantaged social groups and rapid change is difficult without apparently 'displacing' some of these students. For example, the increase in SIMD entrants increased in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland as fast as in Aberdeen. This certainly reflects the efforts made by the RCS. But the actual increase was only from 20 to 25.

Overall two major factors shape comparative institutional performance. The first, and most visible, is the degree of selectivity among universities. This reflects their historic reputations and current perceptions of their attractiveness among parents, teachers and applicants. The second, less often remarked on, is differences in subject mix. This aligns approximately but not exactly with the degree of selectivity. Different subjects recruit from different social pools – for example, medicine or nursing. Some of the differences in institutional performance on fair access will remain until these important differences in the perceived status of professions and occupations are addressed.

School type

The type of school attended by students is not a direct measure of comparative social advantage. But it is a useful proxy. 11 per cent of all higher education students in Scottish institutions had attended independent schools in 2019-20. This was actually higher than in England (9 per cent), which may come as a surprise given the more limited presence of independent schools in Scotland. However, the main reason for this difference is that a substantial number of the former pupils of English independent schools attend universities in Scotland – in particular, Edinburgh and St Andrews.

This is reflected in the figures for individual universities. The percentage of students from state schools is significantly below the calculated benchmark in the case of four institutions – Edinburgh (63.2 per cent), St Andrews (63.9 per cent), the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (81 per cent), which may be a special case, and Aberdeen (82.6 per cent). Conversely, seven universities exceeded their benchmarks: the University of the West of Scotland (98.7 per cent), Abertay (96.6 per cent), Glasgow Caledonian (96.3 per cent), Napier (95.3 per cent) – all post-1992 universities; and three pre-1992 universities – Stirling (94.3 per cent), Strathclyde (92 per cent) and Dundee (89.3 per cent). These institutional differences are largely, but not entirely, explained by differences in recruitment patterns, in particular the degree to which they recruited students locally, regionally or from across the whole of the UK.


Over the past five years the proportion of students receiving Disability Support Allowance (DSA) has increased from 4.6 per cent in 2015-16 to 5.2 per cent in 2019-20. There is a wide variation between institutions from Glasgow School of Art (15.2 per cent) to UWS (1.5 per cent). However, this variation reflects the narrow definition of eligibility, and how that eligibility has been interpreted, more than actual differences in the incidence of disability among students. As an earlier Discussion Paper published by the Commissioner indicated, the incidence of all forms of disability is much greater than DSA figures suggest, especially in the area of mental health where the proportion of students affected has grown significantly in recent years.


There has only been slow progress towards opening up pathways for HN students into universities. A substantial proportion, almost half, of all SIMD20 entrants to first-year first-degree courses in universities, comes via college routes. But between 2015-16 and 2019-20 that proportion remained essentially the same. The proportion of HN students transferring onto degree courses, who receive advanced standing, has also only increased slowly – from 56.7 per cent in 2015-16 to 58.1 per cent in 2019-20. The proportion of articulating students given advanced standing from SIMD20 areas has increased at a slower rate, by 0.7 percentage points compared with 1.4 percentage points for all entrants in this group. It is possible that the work of the National Articulation Forum, and associated activity, will lead to faster progress which will be reflected in the figures for 2020-21. But currently progress is well adrift of the 75 per cent target for articulating HN entrants receiving advanced standing.

One way to encourage more, and fairer, articulation routes between colleges and universities is to provide better information. For policy makers and institutional managers that gap is being addressed by the work of the National Articulation Forum which now provides important data. But comprehensive and accurate, and accessible, information also needs to be made available to students. A useful website aimed at college students aiming at university entrance has been developed on a regional basis in Stirling, Clackmannanshire, Fife, Falkirk, Edinburgh, the Lothians and Borders (www.pathways.ac.uk). The current ambition to extend this website nationally, and secure permanent funding, should be supported.

Although useful progress has been made under the aegis of the NAF, articulation needs to be considered within a wider frame of reference.

  • First, articulation is about more than simply the relationship between HNs and degrees. It should be seen as just one aspect of the flexible pathways that will be needed to put in place to create a wider system of tertiary education and training. Although the HN-degree interface is currently the most important – and, of course, crucial for securing fairer access – in the future other aspects of flexible provision will also become important: for example, within more elaborate modern and graduate apprenticeships pathways or, more speculatively perhaps, between online and in-person learning.
  • Second, the current approach to HN-degree articulation focuses overwhelmingly on the needs and wishes of students – for example, in the case of an HND entrant whether to join a degree course in the second year, with partial credit, or in year 3, with full credit. This is commendable in most respects. But it cannot be the only consideration. Another is the overall efficiency of the system, in terms of reducing duplication, to optimise the use of scarce public resources and maximise the number of places in higher education. For every HN students who receive only partial credit, one funded place is lost.

Recommendations in earlier reports

Almost no action has followed recommendations made in my last Annual Report (June 2020) and my interim report on the impact of Covid-19 on fair access (December 2020). Although understandable in the light of the urgent tasks facing the Government, SFC and institutions as a result of the Covid-19 emergency, this is still disappointing – especially as that emergency has posed a significant challenge to meeting access targets.

In these two reports I recommended the Government's commitment to fair access should be reinforced, and that fair access should be explicitly included as one of the SFC's headline priorities in the next stage of its review of colleges and universities in Scotland, under the general heading of coherence and sustainability. Neither has happened, creating the impression that the contribution of further and higher education to the post-Covid economic recovery is now seen as a higher priority than achieving fair access, or fair access is now seen predominantly through the policy lens of maximising skills rather than the wider perspective of social justice. The direct impacts of Covid-19 already represent a potentially serious setback to achieving fair access. If an indirect impact is that fair access has slipped down the list of Government, and SFC (and, consequentially, institutional) priorities, it would be a further blow. That is why those recommendations are now repeated – in stronger terms.

I also recommended a year ago that active counter-measures needed to be taken urgently to address the additional disadvantages suffered by potential applicants and students from more socially deprived backgrounds. Many institutions – and their staff – have worked very hard to tackle issues such as digital poverty, financial hardship and worsening mental health. Local authorities and schools have worked equally hard. The Government has provided financial support. However, these efforts need to be sustained and intensified to combat longer-term issues including possible demotivation in the earlier and middle years of secondary education, the erosion of already limited educational and cultural capital among the most disadvantaged groups and changes in the post-Covid jobs structure that reduce the number of part-time jobs that students, especially those from more deprived backgrounds, need to pay their way through higher education.

In these reports I made a number of other recommendations to which there has been no response but which I regard as of even greater relevance in the conditions of 2021. These included greater transparency, and a more consistent format for publishing, minimum entry requirements, sustainable funding for the Framework of Fair Access, a step change in the granting of advanced standing to HN entrants to degree courses and a more joined-up approach to addressing all forms of disadvantage, including socio-economic deprivation, in place of standalone silo-like action plans. Finally I made a number of more detailed recommendations with regard to medicine, law and creative subjects to which I did not expect an immediate response but which, I hope, will not be forgotten.


Email: karen.frew@gov.scot

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