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.

5. Pressing Issues: Renewing the Alliance for Fair Access

The decisions and actions that are taken over the next two years will determine whether the next CoWA target for 2026 will be achieved. In this section, 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.

Retaining the focus

Earlier in the report (Fairness), I described the goal of fair access since 2014 as being one that seeks 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. I also explained that SIMD has been used as the means to monitor progress (Understanding SIMD – an indicator not a measure). Although there are other imbalances in access to higher education and although there are other ways in which progress can be gauged, this approach has served us well, providing focus and impetus to action. I would hope that there comes a time when we can strengthen a fair access focus beyond this, but for now and for Scotland as a whole, I recommend that we retain our focus.

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

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

Strengthening the use of SIMD

We need to improve the way in which SIMD is used to support our understanding of fair access. We have the means to better understand whether fair access to higher education is reaching those from the most deprived areas (SIMD10) and those who fall just outside what are currently judged to be the most deprived areas (SIMD20-30 and SIMD30-40). Our best estimate is that almost one-in-four children and young people are living in poverty at the current time, and although area deprivation is not synonymous with poverty, this understanding adds to the strong grounds for extending our focus beyond the 20% Most Deprived Areas. There is also an inconsistency in how SIMD is deployed in tertiary education, with the focus in further education on the 10% Most Deprived Areas,[147] in contrast to 20% Most Deprived Areas in higher education. Although 20% Most Deprived Areas should be retained as the central metric (Recommendation 2) more use should be made of deciles to better understand patterns of fair access.

Recommendation 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.

CoWA recommended that in addition to the national target, each institution should work toward achieving at least 10% of entrants from Scotland's 20% Most Deprived Areas, with this target to be reviewed in 2022 (with a view to the target level for institutions being increased). My predecessor argued in his final report that this institutional target was no longer fit-for-purpose and should be replaced with a basket of indicators defined by the institution.[148] I believe institutions should retain a focus on SIMD, but agree that this particular target is not useful, as – given the geography of area deprivation - it does not encourage most institutions to make progress as they have always exceeded it, and it is highly unlikely that others will ever be able to achieve it. One alternative is to define institutional targets. For now, I prefer an approach that gives autonomy to institutions but implores each to make progress.

Recommendation 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.

An inclusive approach to fair access

Scottish HEIs do not limit their widening access work to facilitating the participation of those from Scotland's 20% Most Deprived Areas. As illustrated earlier using the example of the University of Aberdeen (Understanding SIMD – an indicator not a measure), SIMD20 is only one of many markers that are used by Scottish HEIs for the purpose of contextualised admissions (and other forms of widening access work). Although it is recommended that SIMD is maintained as the primary focus for fair access work, Scottish HEIs are not conveying the totality of their impact in widening access by limiting reporting to the single SIMD20 metric.

Recommendation 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.

The fair access agenda is focused on higher education. This is understandable given that those from deprived areas are under-represented in higher education, and over-represented in further education: 24.2% of all Scottish-domiciled entrants to higher education in Scottish FEIs were from Scotland's 20% Most Deprived Areas in 2021-22).[149] Further education has an important role to play in facilitating fair access to higher education through articulation. More generally, Scotland is strengthening its 'tertiary' focus to align and strengthen post-school outcomes.[150] If we only focus on fair access to higher education, we do not fully understand fair access and, inadvertently, suggest that fair access to further education is not of concern. We should maintain a focus on increasing the participation of those from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education but situate this within the context of understanding the totality of participation in post-school education.

Recommendation 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.

A more ambitious approach to fair access

Although SIMD has served us well, and although I recommend that we continue to use SIMD to appraise progress, I concur with my predecessor and many others[151] that individual-level indicators would better serve the fair access agenda. As noted earlier in the report, the Access Data Short-Life Working Group explored the possibility of introducing individual-level indicators and is likely to conclude that we are not yet ready to operationalise these (Ecosystem of support). Although this would be disappointing for those who advocate for individual-level indicators, if we are not yet ready, then this work must be viewed as the foundation and catalyst for further work to achieve individual-level indicators of fair access in the near future. It is my opinion that this will present an opportunity to embolden work to achieve fair access and is one that Scotland should be ready to embrace.

Recommendation 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.

A more granular analysis of fair access

I have recommended that we strengthen the use of SIMD to better understand fair access (Recommendations 3 and 4). There are many other ways in which we need to make better use of existing data to enrich our understanding of fair access.

We need to give equal weight to student experience, post-degree outcomes and entry to higher education. The primacy of the CoWA metric tends to distort the discussion (if not the focus). Consideration must be given to whether existing CoWA metrics for experience (i.e., retention[152]) and outcomes (i.e., qualifiers[153]) are sufficient. Metrics must be robust and useful, although we must remember that metrics are means to an end. The goal is to focus more attention on the experience of disadvantaged students in higher education and the outcomes that directly follow from this.

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

The CoWA metric focuses on aggregate patterns of entry to higher education for one cohort of students – full-time, Scottish domiciled, first entrants. This is understandable given that this is the largest cohort of entrants and, arguably, the cohort with which greatest impact can be made. However, there are other pathways to higher education and these are equally important in promoting fair access to undergraduate education, e.g., part-time students, Graduate Apprenticeships, those pursuing sub-degree qualifications/studies, and those who are not Scottish domiciled. Access to postgraduate education is also worthy of attention.

Recommendation 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.

Similarly, full-time, Scottish domiciled, first degree entrants access higher education through three pathways, i.e., direct entry from school (including agreed deferred entry), articulation from college, and adult wider access. ROWA background tables provide intelligence on the articulating entrants at a national level[154]. However, there are ways in which these data could be usefully enhanced. For example, data could be presented on the proportion who progress with 'advanced standing' within each subject area (using the Higher Education Classification of Subjects (HECOS)) for each of the three pathways, rather than only presenting the aggregate total to progress with 'advanced standing' for each HECOS subject area).[155] No data are presented on progression through adult access. It would also be helpful to understand the relative contribution of the three pathways to higher education within subject areas and individual Scottish HEIs.

Recommendation 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).

Finally, it would be helpful for a more granular analysis of participation in, and progression to higher education that follows from, the interventions designed to facilitate fair access to the 'high demand professions' within National Schools Programme, i.e., law, medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry, or economics (for Reach), art, design, and architecture (for Access to Creative Education) and performing or production arts (for Transitions).

Recommendation 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.

Securing the role of practitioners

One of the early successes following CoWA was the establishment of the Scottish Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP). I firmly believe in the importance of listening to, learning from, and enabling, those involved in facilitating participation to higher education who are working directly with the next generation (or future generation) of entrants. My predecessor made recommendations for SCAPP in each of his last four annual reports, imploring in different ways for adequate and sustainable funding.[156] I have also encountered some precarity within institutions, with fixed-term contracts creating instability and uncertainty for some access practitioners. If the sector is committed to a fair access agenda (to 2030 at least), then the means must be found to provide security to those who are at the heart of delivering this work.

Recommendation 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.

It is important that we know 'what works' in delivering fair access. Access and participation practitioners have a role to play in answering this question, but it should not be their responsibility, particularly if this is a distraction from practice. The greatest contribution that SCAPP makes to promoting fair access in Scotland is to support the development and further professionalisation of access and participation practitioners.

Recommendation 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.

Engendering collective purpose among universities

There is a body of work that appraises access and participation work in Scotland. Some individuals specialise in researching access and participation (e.g., Laurence Lasselle at the University of St. Andrews[157]); some institutions highlight the internal research that appraises their own widening participation work (e.g., University of Glasgow[158]); there have been attempts to showcase 'what works' (e.g., the report commissioned by Universities Scotland and authored by Sheila Riddell in 2014[159]); and there is SCAPP's Fair Access Toolkit [160], which aims to provide an overview of the effectiveness, cost and strength of evidence that underpins interventions designed to promote participation in higher education. However, research and evaluation in the field of access and participation appears disparate, disconnected, without priority and under-developed.

Recommendation 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.

There are many examples of collaboration and shared purpose as universities in Scotland work toward achieving fair access to higher education, to which some have been referred in this report. On the other hand, Scottish HEIs have their own objectives to fulfil and targets to meet. There has always been competition for students, which can be healthy for the sector as a whole and beneficial for individual students. Informally, some concerns have been expressed to me that achieving the CoWA target leads institutions to 'compete' for the same students in ways which may not necessarily be efficient for the sector. Against this context, it would be helpful to clarify what intelligence in understanding 'what works' in promoting fair access is commercially sensitive and what is in the national interest.

Recommendation 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.

As was noted earlier (Promising interventions) several widening access interventions that were previously celebrated are no longer being delivered. The learning from this work is not readily available, and it is not clear whether these were unsuccessful, partly successful, or successful at the time but no longer necessary. It is particularly important that students/entrants are not disadvantaged by decisions to significantly alter provision, or at least, that the impact of these decisions are understood and mitigated.

Recommendation 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.

Bolstering the ecosystem

The National Schools Programme is focused on conversion, working with pupils in the senior phase of Scottish education, enabling them to access higher education. Complementing this, is much of the widening participation work of individual Scottish HEIs, which takes place in the later stages of broad general education, with some taking place at earlier stages of the same. There is growing acknowledgement that for fair access to be transformative engagement is required before the senior phase, although there is a need to consider what this should involve, how early this should commence, and the practicalities of (potentially) extending work to an estate that includes over 2,000 primary schools, and over 2,500 early learning centres.

Recommendation 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.

Fit for the Future (the Withers review) reported bewilderment when trying to navigate the array of post-school options that are available, reporting that, "Despite the proliferation of web pages and initiatives, I didn't find a single place where I could access all the information I might need to show me the pathways towards a potential occupation, across different providers and the support that might be available, depending on my individual needs".[161] Such a resource could be used to enhance equity and promote access to the resources that are currently available to support access to higher education.

Recommendation 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.

Optimise use of what we already (can) have

Individual HEIs are encouraged to optimise the use of data that could encourage more of those within their institution to make a more active contribution to the fair access agenda. It is helpful to make disaggregated data on progression and performance readily available to Module Leaders and Programme Leaders, which would enable them to reflect on whether there are fair access issues for them to address. However, without incentive and encouragement to use these data, their potential impact may not be realised. It would be helpful to share promising practice among Scottish HEIs with regards to how fair access data is used within institutions.

Back in 2016 CoWA Recommendation 29 implored the Scottish Government to improve mechanisms that would enable data to be shared and learners to be tracked.[162] More recently, It's Our Future envisaged that a Scottish Diploma of Achievement would move with the learner and could be built upon as the school leaver progressed to college, employment, university, or the voluntary sector.[163] It is time to revisit this ask of government to examine the prospects for introducing a single student identifier in Scotland that would serve the diverse needs of Scottish education, not least the ability to better understand movement and progression across different levels of education to achieve fair access.

Recommendation 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.


We are at a pivotal moment in the fair access agenda. Progress has slowed and the context within which it is to be achieved is more challenging than when the agenda was introduced. Asking key stakeholders to re-affirm their commitment to the fair access agenda was a regular ask of my predecessor.[164] Although action is the best form of affirmation, there is much to be gained by restating commitment to achieve fair access and to take the steps necessary to achieve this.

Recommendation 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.


Email: Clara.Pirie@gov.scot

Back to top