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Access in Scotland

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This research analyses the current state of play for widening access to higher education in Scotland, drawing comparisons with other parts of the UK where possible.

It provides an analysis of:

  • Widening access policy levers (Section 1);
  • UCAS headline data on applications, acceptances and entry rates by students from different social backgrounds across the UK (Sections 2 and 3);
  • Higher education initial participation rates (HEIPR) in Scotland and the rest of the UK (Section 4);
  • UK differences in participation rates with regard to type of university and social background using HESA data (Section 5);
  • Cross-UK institutional comparisons using HESA benchmarks (Section 6)
  • Widening participation activity and debates in Scottish higher education institutions, particularly the ancient universities (Section 7).


  • 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.
  • The gap in university participation between young people from the most and least advantaged areas is higher in Scotland than in the other home nations, although it has closed more quickly than elsewhere.  However, Scottish 18 year olds from the most advantaged areas are still more than four times more likely to go straight to university than those from the least advantaged areas.  In England, those from the most advantaged areas are 2.4 times as likely to go to university as those from the least, and three times as likely in Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Despite this, there has been improved access for disadvantaged students in Scotland as well as in the rest of the UK.  Detailed analysis of Scottish Funding Council (SFC) data reveals in Scotland this has been met almost entirely by the expansion of sub-degree programmes in Scottish colleges.  Since 2006, 90 per cent of all the growth in entry into Scottish higher education by disadvantaged students has been through sub-degree courses in colleges. The funded places at the ancients are a notable exception, but there have been few other extra university places taken by disadvantaged students.
  • Academically selective Scottish universities are at least as socially selective as similar types of institution in other parts of the UK. Students from managerial and professional backgrounds (NS-SEC 1-3) are over-represented in highly selective universities in both Scotland and England, and this gap has not narrowed between 1996 and 2014.
  • Analysis using HESA benchmarks shows that there are important differences between the overall characteristics of the Scottish and  English university sectors, with Scotland having a greater proportion of higher tariff, or more academically selective, institutions, whilst England has a higher proportion of lower tariff institutions.  This reflects the fact that England has a relatively large number of post-92 universities, providing more places for students with lower academic qualifications.
  • Interviews with Scottish policy-makers showed that there was strong support for the principles of widening access. Contextualised admissions approaches were particularly endorsed, but there was a lack of detail about their use and effectiveness.  Where there is very strong competition for places, reserving a certain number for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds seems to be an effective way of increasing their representation


  1. The Scottish Government should ensure that additional places are available to meet rising demand.
  1. Bridging programmes to encourage successful higher education destinations should be expanded, alongside effective career and subject advice in schools.
  1. A Commissioner for Fair Access should be appointed to oversee progress on widening access, independent of government and universities.
  1. Both the Scottish Funding Council and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills should provide a breakdown of the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate by social class and type of institution attended.
  1. Widening participation initiatives need to be planned carefully to avoid duplication, and rigorous evaluation needs to run alongside implementation.

Media Coverage

The report was widely covered in the Scottish press including Scotland editions of UK papers, and across the UK on BBC radio and TV. In addition to the coverage on the right, here is the other main coverage.

Scotland’s top universities urged to drop entry rules in key courses for disadvantaged students (Herald Scotland)

John Swinney urged to ‘proceed with caution’ in reforming education system (The National)

Improving social mobility and the transition from college to university (Nigel Seaton, The Herald)

The SNP is failing Scotland’s poorest students (Prospect)

Great system? Surely some myth take (Lindsay Patterson, The Times £, front page)

Poor Education (Leading Article, The Times Scotland £)

Scotland lags behind on poorer students (Branwen Jeffreys, BBC News)

Poor Scots faced with education ‘access gap’ (David Scott Young, Daily Express)

Poor Scots ‘squeezed out of university by SNP cap on places’ (Simon Johnson, Daily Telegraph, front page)

Benefits of free university tuition in Scotland ‘not evident’ (Chris Havergal, Times Higher Education)

Rich are four times more likely to go to university than the poor (Chris Marshall, The Scotsman, page one lead)

Report reveals ‘shocking’ wealth gap in access to university – twice as bad as in England (Kirsteen Patterson, The National)

Unis are failing poor students (David Clegg, Daily Record)

We’ll do the maths and it had better add up, Nicola (Gina Davidson, Edinburgh Evening News)

Scottish universities failing to provide access for disadvantaged students (Allie Hitchcock, National Student)

Time for real action on university access (Herald leading article)

Free tuition policy “damaging” drive to get poorer pupils to university (Andrew Denholm, Herald)

Report finds that Scottish universities are failing poorer students (Study International)