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.

Executive Summary

It did not start here.

This is the sixth annual Commissioner for Access report to be published since the Scottish Government acted on the first of the 34 recommendation of the Commission on Widening Access (CoWA) in its Blueprint for Fairness report (2016): this recommended the appointment of a Commissioner to provide impartial policy advice to develop best practice, improve the evidence base, and hold to account all those with a role in advancing fair access to higher education. Appointed in 2017, Professor Sir Peter Scott made 78 recommendations over five reports starting with Laying the Foundations for Fair Access (2017) and concluding with Maintaining the Momentum Towards Fair Access (2022).

Fair access in Scotland: A qualified celebration.

Much has already been achieved in delivering fair access to higher education in Scotland:

  • Interim 2021 Target. The CoWA Core Target for 2021 (16%) was achieved in advance (2019/20) and has continued to be met/exceeded (2020/21 and 2021/22).
  • Record number of entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds. The highest ever number of entrants from Scotland's most deprived areas was achieved in 2021/22 (5,595).
  • Steady progress in increasing the number of entrants from deprived backgrounds. The number of CoWA Core Target entrants has increased in each of the last five years. There has been a 45% increase in the CoWA core target group since 2013-14 (from 3,850 to 5,595 in 2021-22).

Furthermore, a sense of collective purpose has developed; each of Scotland's HEIs has made some progress in promoting fair access; there are examples of promising practice to found in each Scottish HEI; and a dense ecosystem of support has developed over time.

However, although much progress has been made, there are ways in which each of these successes could be enhanced. It should also be acknowledged that:

  • Progress toward the next Interim Target has stalled. There has been a net increase in the CoWA Core Target of 0.1 percentage points in the last two years, with regression of 0.2 percentage points in the last year (16.4%, 16.7% and 16.5% in the last three years). Furthermore, several HEIs indicated in their latest Outcome Agreements that the proportion of CoWA Core Target entrants seems to have fallen in 2023/24.

Each Scottish HEI could enhance the contribution it makes to the CoWA Core Target; there is a need to examine whether the ecosystem of support is delivering all that it can; and there is a need for more robust evaluation to determine the extent to which promising interventions are impactful interventions.

Back to basics: the nature of fair access.

The presentation of the agenda as 'fair access' since 2014 asserts that the goal is not to widen access per se, but rather to achieve social justice, i.e., to ensure that those with ability from more disadvantaged backgrounds are not excluded from higher education on account of the ways in which access has traditionally been administered. Although there are other imbalances in Scottish higher education, fair access should continue to be pursued for those who may be disadvantaged on account of their socio-economic status. On the other hand, we should be interested in the intersections between socio-economic disadvantage and other planes of difference.

Fair access must continue to focus on entry to higher education. However, there is a need to recalibrate the focus to take account of experience and outcomes. The lack of progress in raising retention rates among the CoWA Core Target group should be addressed.

Concerns have been raised that increasing the share of CoWA Core Target entrants could be at the expense of marginally less disadvantaged entrants (SIMD20-40), and students who do not experience disadvantage (assumed to be in cohorts SIMD40-100). Although it may seem counter-intuitive, at present, increasing the share of students from the most deprived areas has not led to fewer students progressing to higher education from those from less deprived areas.The number of entrants has increased for all Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) quintile cohorts since 2013-14.

SIMD is an indicator of progress toward fair access, rather than a measure of it. It has served, and continues to serve, a useful purpose in providing focus to the fair access agenda and evidencing the progress that has been made in Scotland in recent years. However, there is room to improve how we use SIMD.

2023: a year of review for renewal.

2023 was an exceptional year for thinking through the future of (higher) education in Scotland. Three reports were published, each of which has implications for the fair access agenda, i.e., Purpose and Principles for Post-school Education by the Scottish Government, and two reports commissioned by the same – Fit for the Future: developing a post-school learning system to fuel economic transformation/ Skills Delivery Landscape Review (the Withers review) and It's Our Future: Report of the Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment (the Hayward report).

Each of these reports is aware of the fair access agenda, makes recommendations that have the potential to strengthen it, but equally each raises issues that require actions to be taken to safeguard a commitment to strengthen fair access.

Emergent issues: renewing the alliance for fair access.

I make 20 recommendations over 10 domains. My recommendations extend beyond a narrow focus on the CoWA target, to consider how the framework for promoting fair access can be strengthened.

1. The primary focus for fair access should continue to be improving outcomes for those who experience or have experienced socio-economic disadvantage.

2. Retain SIMD as the central metric to indicate national progress in achieving fair access.

3. To strengthen the utility of SIMD to understand fair access, SFC and institutions are encouraged to report evidence in deciles up to SIMD40, in addition to quintiles.

4. Withdraw the SIMD Institutional target but introduce a commitment from each HEI to take action to increase the proportion of SIMD20 among its entrants or, if this is demonstrably not possible without adverse consequences, to match the highest proportion and number of SIMD20 entrants that it achieved since 2013-14.

5. For universities in Scotland to collectively specify a basket of indicators from which individual HEIs may draw to demonstrate their wider work in promoting fair access.

6. The Scottish Government should consider strengthening the remit of the Commissioner for Fair Access to assume responsibility for advising on fair access to the whole of tertiary education.

7. The Scottish Government should take the necessary preparatory steps to embolden the fair access agenda beyond 2026 by transitioning toward individual-level indicators of socio-economic disadvantage, and thereafter to challenge institutions to achieve fair access for prospective students who have experienced such disadvantage.

8. The fair access agenda should be recalibrated to give equal weight to entry, student experience, and outcomes.

9. The primary focus on fair access should remain on Scottish-domiciled, full-time, first-degree entrants. However, for a rounded perspective on fair access to higher education, it is necessary to also focus on Graduate Apprenticeships, part-time undergraduate study, and postgraduate study.

10. Wherever practicable, data on fair access should be disaggregated to understand the relative contributions of different pathways (direct entry from school; articulation; and adult wider access).

11. SFC, in conjunction with participating universities, should ensure that disaggregated data are available for each of the disciplines that comprise the 'high demand professions' that are part of the AHDP programme (to enable the national impact of this work to be appraised) and the Transitions programme.

12. SFC should act on the advice of the previous Commissioner for Fair Access, specified as a recommendation in each of his last four annual reports, to commit to more secure and longer-term funding for SCAPP.

13. It should be re-affirmed that the central purpose of SCAPP is as a vehicle to support the development and professionalisation of a widening access and participation practitioner community in Scotland.

14. SFC, in conjunction with SCAPP, Universities Scotland and the wider educational research community in Scotland, should examine what steps should be taken to strengthen research and evaluation to underpin the fair access agenda.

15. For universities in Scotland to collectively agree what intelligence is in the national interest to promote fair access (as opposed to that which is commercially sensitive), and thereafter to ensure that this intelligence is made available to all relevant stakeholders in Scotland.

16. Should the decision be taken to withdraw funding for an intervention that had been integral to promoting fair access, or if an element of such work is to be radically altered, providers should undertake (and funders should encourage) an impact assessment to ascertain the impact on pupil cohorts who have previously benefited from this provision.

17. School leaders in Scotland, the SFC and its National Schools Programme, SCAPP and Universities Scotland should examine if, and if so what, steps should be taken to underpin the fair access agenda within the broad general education phase in Scottish education.

18. SFC, Universities Scotland and Skills Development Scotland should examine the prospects of introducing an easily accessible user-centred web-based resource that provides a single point of reference to inform prospective students and other stakeholders of the programmes and resources that are available to support access to higher education.

19. Stakeholders should explore the prospects for introducing a single student identifier to improve tracking and to facilitate more robust evaluation of the impact of fair access activity.

20. Stakeholders and leaders should reaffirm their commitment to promote fair access and commit to take those actions necessary to attain the next interim target for 2026

My priorities for 2024.

I have ten priorities for 2024, the first three of which describe how I will approach my work as Commissioner: it is my intention that each of the remainder will lead to future recommendations on actions to be taken to promote fair access.

1. To follow up on each of my recommendations and to report on progress in my next annual report.

2. To produce a second annual report, to be published as soon as is practicably possible after the release of the SFC's Report on Widening Access 2022-23.

3. To produce my first bi-annual report, ideally to be published at the start of 2025, i.e., halfway between annual reports, to provide a timely update on progress to promote fair access.

4. To engage with school leaders and universities in Scotland to explore whether inefficiencies in SCQF Level 7 can be addressed through system change and/or institutional practice.

5. To engage with Universities Scotland and Colleges Scotland to better understand the prospects for increasing the proportion of HN students articulating with so-called 'Advanced Standing' into SCQF Level 8 and 9.

6. To examine retention rates for SIMD20 entrants, focusing on why these have not improved substantially since the introduction of the CoWA agenda.

7. To reflect on insight from the Student Finance and Wellbeing Survey commissioned by the Scottish Government, and the wider evidence base, to better understand how students' financial situation impacts on fair access.

8. To explore possibilities to enhance and promote regional intelligence, and to strengthen cross-institutional collaboration in regions to advance the fair access agenda.

9. To review the deployment of contextual admissions and Minimum Entry Requirements across Scottish HEIs to appraise whether the impact on fair access is optimal.

10. To engage with professional bodies, Programme leads, and Heads of Department (or equivalent) to promote shared responsibility for the fair access agenda in Scotland.


Email: Clara.Pirie@gov.scot

Back to top