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New Insights on WP: Scotland the Brave?

  • 30 August 2017
  • By Vonnie Sandlan

On 14 August 2017, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the social mobility charity Brightside jointly published a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’.

Since 15 August, we have been showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.

This blog, the eleventh in the series, features the chapter written by Vonnie Sandlan, former National Union of Students Scotland President, on Scotland’s performance in widening participation.

Scotland the Brave?

Vonnie Sandlan

I want us to determine now that a child born today in one of our most deprived communities will, by the time he or she leaves school, have the same chance of going to university as a child born in one of our least deprived communities.

With these words on 26 November 2014, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, acknowledged Scotland’s historically unenviable record on access to university for those from the poorest communities. This social injustice had been highlighted over many years by the National Union of Students in Scotland. The First Minister convened the Commission on Widening Access (CoWA), chaired by renowned educationalist Dame Ruth Silver.

The Commission’s remit was extensive:

  • to produce an evidence-based report which synthesised existing evidence on barriers, which included robust targets which would drive further and faster progress on widening access;
  • to identify work in this area which had measurable impact and which was scaleable; and
  • to identify the data required to monitor progress.

Data, it turns out, are the weakest link, and much of the meaningful information available has to be drawn from multiple sector organisations. In order to define widening access and to ensure any actions to make access to education more equitable and fairer have impact, CoWA made robust recommendations about tracking learners from early years and about how data is collected, shared, analysed and published. The Commission’s final report is clear, concise and worth reading.

Figure 1 is taken from the most recent UCAS End of Cycle Report and starkly demonstrates the entry rates to university of 18- year olds, by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD).


This analysis was published after both CoWA’s interim report and their final report entitled A Blueprint for Fairness, and it is easy to see where the causes for concern came from. UCAS figures show that, in 2016, university applicants from the 20 per cent least deprived areas of Scotland were four times more likely to secure a university place than those from the 20 per cent most deprived areas. This is, of course, a sector average: the statistics are stark when refined to look only at the most selective universities.

Although there has been a significant shift in entry to university from the most deprived areas in Scotland in the last 10 years, these figures still pale in comparison to the university entry rates of those from the least deprived areas, as Figure 1 so clearly demonstrates. The statistics do not lie, but do they tell the whole story?

UCAS data cover applicants for university entry, but Scotland has a strong tradition of higher education delivery in colleges – a tradition not replicated to the same extent in the rest of the UK. This alters the true higher education participation landscape, not only in the number of students undertaking higher education study, but also in terms of the students’ backgrounds. In order to see the reality of higher education participation in Scotland, and indeed over the period in which widening access initiatives have been active, it is imperative to look at other data sources that include college participation.

Figure 2 uses data from the Student Awards Agency Scotland and shows which students claim student support by the type of institution that they study in.

When just over 22 per cent of all higher education students for the academic year 2015/16 were enrolled in a college, it is clear that in Scotland’s world-class education system, colleges are truly ‘the little engine who could’. To break that data down further we can turn to the analysis from the Scottish Funding Council in Figure 3 which demonstrates that, when it comes to getting students from deprived backgrounds into higher education, colleges have been progressing Scotland’s widening access ambition for years. Students from the 10 per cent, 20 per cent and 40 per cent most deprived areas have been consistently over-represented in colleges.

These charts together paint a memorable picture of class division in Scottish higher education, with colleges seemingly better equipped to serve students from the poorest areas. Although the proportion of students from the 40 per cent most deprived areas studying in post-1992 universities compares favourably to the ancient universities, it remains the college sector that most effectively brings higher education into the heart of communities in areas of multiple deprivation.

There are a myriad of explanations for why colleges do comparatively well on access. Curriculum for Excellence, underpinned by School-College partnerships, allows school pupils to undertake short or medium courses in college as part of their school curriculum. This early introduction to learning in a college campus, demystifying the environment, cannot be underestimated in encouraging a sense of belonging. In a similar vein, college roots extend into the communities they are in, and so are well placed to provide those opportunities for mature learners, including those who are the furthest from both education and the labour market. Their learning journey may begin at further education level before moving into higher education. Partnership and outreach are key features of college activity and there are examples of good practice already being replicated by some universities.

An example of this good practice extending from college to university is a unique, yet relatively unknown, feature of Scottish higher education: articulation. This is the process by which a student who has successfully completed their higher education course in college progresses on to the next level of study at university. Using the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) to underpin articulation, students with a Higher National Certificate (HNC) are empowered to move directly into the second year at a partner university, and those with a Higher National Diploma (HND) can move into the third year. This approach suits the learner whose time frame to complete their degree is streamlined, while also delivering value to the public purse.

Currently, the majority of articulation pathways in Scotland are carried by the five post-92 universities that have, historically, sought to recruit students rather than being more selective. But the true national potential for widening access through articulation will only be realised when it is the norm for all institutions.

Widening access is, as Dame Ruth asserted often during the Commission’s meetings, a whole system problem that requires a whole system approach. The recommendations from the Blueprint for Fairness report have been accepted by the Scottish Government and welcomed by the education sector, and Professor Sir Peter Scott is now in post as Scotland’s first Independent Fair Access Commissioner.

It seems clear that in order to develop the Scottish approach to fair access and to achieve the ambitions for fair access to higher education, it is the college sector in Scotland that will be the linchpin for success to rest upon. It is the same college sector that can demonstrate good practice from which our universities could afford to learn a thing or two.

Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list for the next chapter delivered straight to your inbox tomorrow! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.

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