Higher education - renewing the alliance for fair access: annual report 2024

The sixth annual report of the Commissioner for Fair Access concludes that much has already been achieved in delivering fair access to higher education in Scotland, but Professor John H. McKendrick considers how the framework for promoting fair access can be strengthened.

An Introduction to Fair Access in Scotland

1. What is fair access? Fair access is the name given to work to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds access higher education in Scotland.

2. What is the national target for fair access? By 2030, students from the 20% most deprived areas should represent 20% of entrants to higher education.

3. Are we there yet? No. Currently, 16.5% of entrants to higher education are from the 20% most deprived areas.

4. Are there interim targets to be met before 2030? Yes. A target of 16% was set for 2021 (and met). The next target is that by 2026, 18% of entrants to higher education will be from the 20% most deprived areas.

5. Are we headed in the right direction? Perhaps. Although we met the 2021 target and although there were a record number of entrants to higher education from deprived areas last year, the share of entrants from deprived areas fell from 16.7% to 16.5% (last year, the increase in the number of entrants was greater for those living outside deprived areas).

6. What is the scale of the challenge that lies ahead? Significant. Future entrants have had to manage learning through times of COVID and a cost-of-living crisis. Scotland's fiscal position also makes it more challenging to resource fair access work.

7. Is there promising practice? Yes. There is already a wide range of actions being undertaken to enable fair access to higher education in Scotland. However, there is scope for more of this type of work to be undertaken.

8. Do we know 'what works'? We think so. The increased numbers of people from Scotland's most deprived areas who are now accessing higher education would suggest that something is working. However, we need to strengthen the evidence base to better understand which (or which combination) of these actions is making the difference.

9. Who is responsible for achieving fair access? Obviously, universities in Scotland have the key role to play. However, fair access is an example of an objective that is 'everybody's business' – we won't achieve fair access unless schools, colleges, government, the wider 'public sector', third sector organisations working in this field, and families do what is required to enable entrants to realise their own potential.

10. Is fair access only about getting people into university? No. Fair access is also about enabling entrants to thrive in higher education and helping them achieve positive outcomes after graduation. However, much of the early fair access work has, understandably, been focused on entry to tackle the under-representation among entrants.

11. Does this mean that less disadvantaged students will lose out? Not for Scotland as a whole. In fact, the number of the entrants from the least deprived areas has increased by 8.4% (690 entrants) since 2013/14. The much higher increase in the number from the most deprived areas (45.3% since 2013/14, or an extra 1,745) is narrowing the gap. Entrants from the least deprived areas are still the largest cohort, with 1.6 times more entrants than the most deprived areas. Furthermore, the growth in entry among those from the most deprived areas is not at the expense of those slightly less deprived areas (growth of 32.5% since 2013/14, or an extra 1,395 entrants from the 20-40% most deprived areas).

12. Should we continue to promote fair access? Yes. Fair access is about promoting social justice. It is, and should be, viewed as a key aspect of Scotland's national mission to eradicate poverty.


Email: Clara.Pirie@gov.scot

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