Blimey: can Scotland meet its widening access targets?

New data from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) suggests the scale of change needed to meet the Scottish Government’s targets for widening access to university – a key pledge of Nicola Sturgeon’s first full term – may be too much.

The 2021 targets

Government’s targets come from last year’s report by the Commission on Widening Access, which recommended that (emphasis added):

• By 2030, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education.

Equality of access should be seen in both the college sector and the university sector. To drive progress toward this goal:

• By 2021, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 16% of full-time first degree entrants to Scottish HEIs as a whole.

• By 2021, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 10% of full-time first degree entrants to every individual Scottish university.

• By 2026, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 18% of full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities as a whole.

• In 2022, the target of 10% for individual Scottish universities should be reviewed and a higher level target should be considered for the subsequent years.

[The SFC also uses a target of 15.5% of HEI entrants by 2019-20  – see para 56 here. The SFC attributes that to the Commission, but no such target appears in the Commission report.]

The distinction between higher education and universities (or HEIs, a category comprising universities plus 3 other specialist HE providers) is important,  because “higher education” includes the substantial amount  of HN-level HE provided in colleges in Scotland, which already have intakes which are relatively well-balanced by social background.  It is in the universities where unequal access by background persists.

The remit of the Commission was specifically to think about access to university. However, the Commission’s report looked more widely, and the newly-appointed Commissioner was keen to stress last week that he saw his brief as extending across all higher education:

The major thing that I can do is not to focus too strongly on just the universities’ contribution and to give greater recognition to what colleges can and do deliver. (Sir Peter Scott, 25 January 2017)


The 2021 targets above however are clearly about universities, so it’s worth looking at the latest data released by the SFC.  That’s because it’s the nearest thing we have to a statistic measuring the access targets’ focus: the percentage of undergraduate entrants to universities/HEIs from the most disadvantaged areas.

The SFC statistics are not a perfect reflection of that target. They are only for full-time entrants under 21. Adding older entrants  would almost certainly boost the share of students from disadvantaged areas, but the overall effect is likely to be modest. There are far fewer full-time entrants of 21 and over, and any greater skew amongst them  towards the most deprived areas isn’t likely to be large enough to affect the overall average much.

On the other side, the SFC figures exclude entrants from outside Scotland, who tend to be more advantaged than the Scottish student body as a whole. Although it is not explicitly limited in this way, I assume here that the target is concerned with the percentage of disadvantaged Scots as a proportion of all Scottish students. If not, then the challenge is much greater, and the gap much wider, than shown below. I am encouraged in focussing on Scots by the Access Commissioner’s interpretation of his remit:

I see the primary responsibility of my role—and I think that this was the prime focus of the commission—as being to focus on fair access for Scotland-domiciled students. I do not think that I have any remit to make access fairer for students who come from England or Wales to attend Scottish institutions, although I accept that the social composition of those students changes the flavour and affects the culture of at least some Scottish universities. (Source as above)


The SFC data

The SFC statistics can be reached via the link at the foot of this page.

Here’s the total proportion from the most disadvantaged 20% of areas (SIMD20) since 2006-07, with the 2021 (all age) target added for comparison.


In 2013-14, some additional HEI places ring-fenced for widening access were released (more on the effect of that here). That explains the increase from that year. But intervention on a completely different scale appears likely to be needed over the next 5 years, to reach an average of 16% across all HEIs. (For the separate SFC target mentioned above, imagine a line almost as high in the figure above, 15.5%, but two years sooner, in 2019-20.)

The target also includes a minimum of 10% for individual institutions by 2021. Figures for the last four years are shown below for each HEI.  2012-13 is marked in yellow, as the last year before additional places were released. Those institutions marked * received some of these places.

Only 4 HEIs have been above 10% for  each of the last 3 years (Dundee, Glasgow Caledonian, Glasgow School of Art and the University of the West of Scotland).

Seven HEIs have never crossed this line: of these Aberdeen, Edinburgh, RGU and St Andrews are all below 7%. The remainder have hit 10% at least once in the past three years, though some are more consistently close than others.

There is, noticeably, a lot of volatility at institutional level. Many HEIs show no clear trend, despite the emphasis placed on widening access in recent years. Of those receiving extra places, Dundee, Stirling and Glasgow School of Art stand out for increasing the share of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds and sustaining that, over the whole period these were  distributed.

In short, getting everyone over the 10% line by 2021 looks very hard. Keeping them there looks harder still. The institutions with furthest to go also tend to be those with younger intakes, where adding older entrants is least likely to help.

Getting to 2021

There hasn’t been much acknowledgement of what demanding targets the Commission set, and the Government has accepted. However, at last week’s Committee hearing the new Access Commissioner said:

I suspect that some of my responsibility might be to manage down expectations about what the commissioner can deliver.

That seems absolutely fair. At the same session, the Commissioner clarified that his is a 3 to 5 day a month appointment (although in practice he expected to be in Scotland five days a month, and to be working a similar amount – unpaid presumably – beyond that), with no assigned budget, at least as yet.   It’s a much more low-key arrangement than the Office of Fair Access in England, no doubt deliberately so. Sir Peter also stressed that he wanted to take time to understand the situation here better and was not yet ready to move into “pro-active mode”.  His first  annual report is due in a year’s time, that is, early 2018 – less than three years before applications will be submitted for entry in 2021 – and less than a year before applications begin for 2019.

So, time is tight, and these targets are tough. A system which increased the share of the most disadvantaged from 8.7% to 10.8% over a decade, with the help of dedicated additional places, is now expected to increase from 10.8% to 16% in just six years [or even more demandingly, to 15.5% in four years, according to the SFC], with no promise of further expansion. Over half of institutions will need to increase substantially (in some cases more than double) their performance over the same period. Even if including older entrants might provide a boost of, say, a couple of percentage points to the national average, the only sensible response to this ambition is – blimey. And to wish everyone involved good luck. It’s not that it can’t be done, but it needs to be acknowledged what a huge task it represents.

First published on the author’s own site


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *