Widening access ‘not at expense’ of more privileged Scots

Commissioner for fair access warns that rate of progress may be slowing as he sets range of recommendations for government

January 30, 2024
Glasgow University cloisters
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A record number of students from disadvantaged areas are securing places at Scottish universities, but the increase has not been at the expense of entrants from less deprived areas, according to new findings.

The annual report from the commissioner for fair access, an independent advisory position, reviews the work being done in Scotland to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds access higher education.

It finds that the highest ever number of entrants from Scotland’s most deprived areas was achieved in 2021-22, but students from the least deprived areas remained the largest cohort – with their numbers up by 8.4 per cent on 2013-14.

Currently, 16.5 per cent of entrants to higher education are from the most deprived areas, but universities are aiming to increase this to 20 per cent by 2030.

John McKendrick, who occupies the role designed to hold ministers to account as they work towards fair access targets, said: “Scotland continues to make progress in promoting fair access to higher education, although there are signs that the rate of progress is slowing down.

“The whole point of this work is not to widen access per se, but rather to achieve social justice: that is, to ensure that those with ability from most disadvantaged backgrounds are not excluded from higher education on account of the ways in which access was traditionally administered.”

Professor McKendrick, who is based at Glasgow Caledonian University, makes 20 recommendations, and outlines 10 priorities for his work in the year ahead.

These recommendations include: replacing redundant individual institutional targets with a fair access pledge that implores each institution to make progress; for the Scottish government to consider strengthening the remit of the commissioner to assume responsibility for advising on fair access to the whole of tertiary education; and to widen the scope of fair access to include graduate apprenticeships, part-time undergraduate study and postgraduate study.

Professor McKendrick said the goal of widening access to universities had been pursued in Scotland for many years, although some Scottish institutions had aligned themselves more centrally to this agenda than others.

He said all of Scotland’s higher education institutions had made some progress in promoting fair access, but there was scope to achieve more.

“We should also recognise that the challenges that are faced by many of those who want to access higher education from our most disadvantaged areas – child cost-of-living pressures, family poverty and the poverty-related attainment gap in schools – persist at unacceptably high levels, despite the good intentions to work toward reduction, if not eradication,” he added.

Among his priorities for 2024 are commitments to examine what can be undertaken to improve retention rates among students from disadvantaged areas, and to engage with a broader range of stakeholders to promote shared responsibility for achieving fair access in Scotland.


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