Widening access to higher education in Scotland (updated 2)

14 Mar

Update: 14 March 2016

Final report by Commission on Widening Access published

A Blueprint for Fairness has been published, setting out a range of actions aimed at ensuring a student’s background is not a barrier to taking up a place at university.  The Commission on Widening Access has made 34 recommendations, including:

  • a series of targets should be set to ensure that, by 2030, students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas make up 20 per cent of higher education entrants;
  • the creation of a Commissioner for Fair Access to drive the agenda across the country;
  • new admissions thresholds for students from the most deprived backgrounds;
  • entitlements to the offer of a place and full bursary for students with care experience who meet admissions thresholds; and
  • a more collaborative approach to delivering access programmes by universities, colleges and schools.

Voice Scotland’s response.


Update: 12 November 2015

Commission on Widening Access Interim Report

20 July 2015

Voice Scotland has responded to the Commission on Widening Access.

The key points of Voice Scotland’s response: 


Barriers to accessing higher education for people from people from socio-economically deprived backgrounds and those with care experience include:

  • low expectations (which may be self-imposed and/or imposed by family, peers and education professionals);
  • lack of good quality careers advice, information and guidance at an early stage;
  • lack of effective support for learning (primarily in school, but also in higher education);
  • lack of funding (especially if school leavers are required to find work in order to support their parents and siblings);
  • extra-curricular activities which are beneficial to a student’s CV, such as participation in clubs, societies and sporting activities, ensuring a rounded university experience, represents a further cost);
  • lack of childcare (in the case of school leavers with young children, an experience which is more common among the socio-economically deprived and care-leavers);
  • perceived lack of relevance of, or engagement with, academic learning; and
  • lack of role models within the school leaver’s family and community.

In order to overcome these barriers, the following strategies need to be developed and deployed:

  • work with families, communities, teachers and pupils to raise expectations, identify potential and nurture aspirations;
  • improve access to high quality, independent and impartial information, advice and guidance, with particular focus on the needs of those from socio-economically deprived backgrounds and care experience;  
  • provide better and more consistent learning support in school and higher education, including homework clubs, supervised study and coaching/mentoring;
  • ensure that this target group is adequately funded, and review incentives (and possibly penalties) to drive higher education institutions to extend access and widen participation;  
  • develop systems for extending access to practical support (including childcare);  
  • revisit the curriculum (and how the curriculum is delivered) to ensure personalised relevance to the target group (and integrate this with extra-curricular opportunities designed to engage the target group in education, improve attendance, and widen horizons);
  • connect the target group with appropriate role models (including visiting speakers who have achieved success having overcome similar difficulties, and developing a system of mentoring whereby young people are matched with such people within their own communities); and
  • improve access to work shadowing/career exploration opportunities and non-academic activities, given that these elements are also matters considered by institutions alongside academic achievement.

“Given the attainment gap which exists at present within Scottish education, it is appropriate for admissions departments to be mindful of the context within which that achievement was attained.”

Much work is currently being undertaken by colleges and universities to encourage applications and this good practice should continue to be developed and extended, including to:

  • provide course tasters (for example, during school holidays) to stimulate interest, awareness and ambition;
  • require institutions (and faculties within institutions) to produce annual action plans setting out how they will contribute to recruitment and retention targets in relation to applicants from socio-economically deprived backgrounds and care experience;
  • foster specific links with schools in deprived areas, and offer higher education awareness visits, master classes, taster days, open days and summer schools; and
  • run workshops or clinics to assist pupils in preparing for higher education and completing application forms.

Actions that can be taken to support people from socio-economically deprived backgrounds who enter higher education to complete their courses successfully might include:

  • reviewing the curriculum and delivery strategies to ensure they are inclusive, relevant and engaging;
  • strengthening systems for peer mentoring, other academic mentoring and alumni mentors;
  • tracking progress and offering appropriate interventions as necessary; and
  • providing ongoing training and development activities for staff in how to support and engage with the target group, including seeking an awareness of the practical impact of financial constraints on students in accessing further and higher education, in order to devise strategies to overcome barriers (for example  the cost of materials such as university textbooks can be significant).
Best practice 

“There are many examples in the UK, and around the world, which could be introduced in Scotland to improve access, retention and successful completion for people from socio-economically deprived backgrounds.  The Open University provides a notable example.”

Programmes which are already in use in Scotland with a proven record of success include those currently being run by the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow and other Scottish universities. 

National programmes which could be extended further include Reach Scotland and ACES. 


“It is important to have accurate and comprehensive data in order to measure Scotland’s progress on widening access to higher education. 

“Much of this data is already held by UCAS and HESA, but should also be available at the level of individual institutions (and at faculty level within institutions).”  Such statistics can also be collated at a national level.

Such data should include:

  • recruitment, retention and successful completion statistics in relation to care leavers; and
  • students from state schools, specified socio-economic classes, low participation neighbourhoods and students who are the first in their families to go to university

“When considering applications from under-represented groups, it is important to look beyond market principles by taking account of potential, speed of progress (during the secondary school years), professional references, extra-curricular achievements, participation in widening participation activities, character/motivation, and support networks.”

“Attempts to widen access have been developed and refined over many years, such that there should certainly be enough evidence available to ascertain their effectiveness.  All that is required is to collate and analyse the available evidence. 

“However, whilst there is some very good practice in Scotland, it is important not to be insular, but to look wider afield at UK-wide and international practices, but paying due regard to different cultural and structural contexts in which such practices have been developed and applied.” 


“The education sector cannot provide all the solutions to the problem of widening participation.  There is a need for collaboration between all public and social services, including health, social care and community networks.”

“Socio-economic disadvantage is not the only area of disadvantage meriting attention; for example, disadvantage due to a protected characteristic (e.g. disability) under the Equality Act 2010 may also impact upon access to further and higher education.”

Do let us know your views…
Raising Attainment for All



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5 Responses to “Widening access to higher education in Scotland (updated 2)”

  1. Richard Fraser 26. Oct, 2015 at 10:27 am #

    Report on comprehensive schools http://www.ces.ed.ac.uk/book.html (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-34631493)

  2. Richard Fraser 13. Nov, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

    “Universities ‘should favour’ less well-off students” (BBC) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-34807886

  3. Richard Fraser 25. May, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

    Commissioner to be appointed: http://news.scotland.gov.uk/News/A-precious-opportunity-24f7.aspx

  4. Richard Fraser 08. Jun, 2017 at 3:38 pm #

    Scottish Government: “Implementing a ‘Blueprint for Fairness’ – A report on progress with recommendations of the Commission on Widening Access”

    The report provides an update on the progress that has been made with recommendations from the Commission on Widening Access. The Commission was established to advise Ministers on the steps necessary to achieve equality of access to higher education in Scotland for those from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background or with a care experience. The Commission’s final report A Blueprint for Fairness, was published in March 2016


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