Virtually all the growth in higher education places for disadvantaged students in Scotland over the last decade has been provided by colleges rather than universities, new research from the Sutton Trust reveals today.

The study Access in Scotland, led by Professor Sheila Riddell of the University of Edinburgh, provides new analysis of official data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showing that 90% of all growth in those first entering Scottish higher education has been through sub-degree courses in colleges.

The report shows that while Scots are more likely than their English counterparts to enter some form of higher education, they are less likely to be able to go straight to university, and many of those that do so through such ‘articulation’ often have to repeat at least one year.

In 2013-14, 55% of Scots entered higher education by the age of 30, with 20.9% starting at an FE college and 34.1% going straight to university after school.  In England 46.6% entered higher education, with just 6% starting at FE colleges and other non-university providers. Half of the Scottish students who move from college to university are required to repeat one or more years, and this is more likely if they move to an older university.

In recent years, there has been a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor young people entering higher education across the UK. But despite improvements in recent year, Scottish young people from the fifth most advantaged areas are four times more likely to go to university than those in the fifth least advantaged areas. The equivalent figure in England is 2.4 times, and in Wales and Northern Ireland they are three times more likely to do so.

However, the report shows that disadvantaged Scottish students are more likely to enter a leading ‘higher tariff’ university – including the Ancients and Russell Group – than their English counterparts with a four-fold access gap in Scotland between those from the richest and poorest fifth of neighbourhoods compared to a seven-fold gap in England. The decision of the Scottish government, from 2012 onwards, to award 720 additional places to ancient universities specifically for young people from the most disadvantaged areas has been particularly important.

Using a social class measure rather than neighbourhood data, the report suggests that there has been no narrowing of the gap between those students from managerial and professional family backgrounds and those from working class backgrounds in Scotland since 1996.

The report is urging the speedy appointment of a new independent Commissioner for Fair Access,  as well as welcoming the Commission on Widening Access target that a fifth of students come from the 20% poorest areas by 2030. It is also urging the government to continue funding additional places for disadvantaged students.

The Sutton Trust runs summer schools with St Andrews and Edinburgh universities with places for 250 students each year.


Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Scotland faces a shocking access gap, and it is vital that the government appoints a strong independent commissioner without delay. There is good practice in Scottish universities on access, but we need a really strong push if talent is not to be wasted. It is vital that access to higher education improves to the best universities and that there is a role for clearer contextual admissions.”

Prof Sheila Riddell, Director of the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity at the Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, said: “Despite free tuition, the Scottish university sector has much work to do in order to realise the goal of fair access.  This report sheds new light on the problem, in particular highlighting an over-reliance on the Scottish college sector to increase participation rates overall and, in particular, for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  The report also notes that the supply of university places in Scotland has not kept pace with rising demand, with detrimental consequences for less advantaged students. The growing tendency of students from privileged backgrounds to occupy the lion’s share of places in Scottish ancient universities is also noted”.

For further information or to arrange an interview, please contact: Hilary Cornwell, Oliver Cardinali or Conor Ryan on 0207 802 1660.


  1. The Sutton Trustis a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 170 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions. The Sutton Trust runs summer schools with St Andrews and Edinburgh universities with places for 250 students each year.
  2. The research by Lucy Hunter Blackburn, Gitit Sadar-Katat, Sheila Riddell and Elisabet Weedon, analysed:
  • UK university applications, admissions and entry using UCAS data.
  • Higher Education Initial Participation Rates in England and Scotland using UCAS and SFC data.
  • Changes in the social profile of Scottish and English universities since 1996 using UCAS and HESA data.
  • Cross-UK institutional comparisons using HESA benchmarks.
  • Approaches to widening access in Scottish institutions using widening access outcome agreements and interviews with senior managers, with a particular focus on the ancient universities.
  1. The Sutton Trust’s Director of Research, Policy and Communications, Conor Ryan was a member of the Commission on Widening Access. The commission’s report, published in March, is available here. The proposal of a Commissioner for Fair Access was made by the commission and accepted by the First Minister on 10 April.

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