Scottish universities should be required to set lower entry requirements for students from deprived backgrounds, a major review of admissions has concluded.
The final report of the Commission on Widening Access acknowledges that introducing contextual grade thresholds in a system in which undergraduate numbers are capped might lead to the “displacement of other applicants”.
But it argues that disadvantaged students faced a “much more difficult” route to getting the grades for entering higher education, and that enrolment was therefore being “unnecessarily, and unfairly” limited by an overreliance on school attainment as the primary measure of academic ability, especially when there was “increasingly compelling evidence” that such students could match or outperform their more affluent peers once they get to university.
One option would be to expand universities but, if any more privileged students are forced out, they could consider taking a vocational pathway or a higher level apprenticeship, the report says.
“If we are serious about achieving a fairer Scotland, this will require some movement across the system and a breaking down of entrenched patterns of advantage…we do not take the view that higher education in university is the best or only option in Scotland; nevertheless it has to be an option that is available to people from all parts of our society,” the report says.
Sir Pete Downes, the convenor of Universities Scotland and principal of the University of Dundee, said that the proposed approach to entry requirements would be “challenging” for universities.
Lower entry thresholds would not operate as an entitlement to enrolment, in the first instance at least, with universities retaining the autonomy to refuse students if there was good reason to do so. However, if the measure does not have the desired effect, ministers should consider making it an entitlement, the report says.
The commission, made up of sector leaders including two university principals, also recommends that the Scottish government appoints a commissioner for fair access, similar to the role held by Les Ebdon in England.
It says that a current “lack of strategic overview” was at the root of several problems in widening participation in Scotland, and that giving responsibility for holding all parts of the system to account would be beneficial.
In another recommendation, the commission says that all care leavers who meet entry requirements should be guaranteed an offer of a place at a Scottish university, and that they should be offered a government bursary, instead of a living costs loan.
The commission also recommends a series of targets, with a view to ensuring that students from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds should represent 20 per cent of higher education entrants by 2030. Currently, they represent 13.7 per cent, compared with the 29.2 per cent share held by the richest 20 per cent.
Angela Constance, the Scottish education secretary, said that she would immediately accept the recommended targets, and would give the other 33 recommendations “careful consideration”.