Widening access to higher education – Scotland’s progress

By stewartb

Perhaps you too missed the news coverage of a recent announcement concerning Scotland’s higher education sector. This relates to a publication on 17 May by the Scottish Funding Council on widening access to universities and colleges.


Some key findings are summarised in the table below, from the SFC report.

(CE = care experienced; COWA = Commission on Widening Access; MD20 = Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, most deprived quintile)

It shows that:

  1. in 2020-21, 16.7% of all Scottish-domiciled full-time first-degree entrants were from the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland – up 3 percentage points since 2013-14, a 21.8% increase
  2. when combining all undergraduate Higher Education (HE) provision, at both universities and colleges, 19.7% of entrants were from the 20% most deprived areas – up 2.5 percentage points since 2013-14, a 14.5% increase
  3. those self-reporting as ‘care-experienced’ students represented 1.9% of Scottish-domiciled entrants to undergraduate courses at Scotland’s colleges and universities in 2020-21 – up 1.6 percentage points since 2013-14, a 533% increase!

We also learn from the report that:

4. colleges in Scotland recruited 25.3% of their Scottish-domiciled entrants to higher education courses from the 20% most deprived areas – up 2.9 percentage points since 2013-14, a 12.9% increase.

Acceptance on to a course is an important metric but of course, so too is successful completion. The table below from the SFC report provides data on those achieving higher education qualifications since 2013-14.

The SFC report notes: ‘In spite of the challenges faced by the two sectors and their students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, 58,475 students successfully achieved an undergraduate-level Higher Education (HE) qualification in 2020-21 from Scotlands colleges and universities. Of those achieving qualifications, 18.6% were from the 20% most deprived areas.’

The report adds: Other college and university students who may initially have expected to graduate in 2020-21, but were impacted by the pandemic, are instead expected to obtain their awards in future academic years.’ So the qualifying data for the period of the pandemic are minimum figures as there may be more, but delayed qualifiers.

Note that pre-pandemic there was already a rise in the percentage of qualifiers from the 20% most deprived areas:

  • for full-time first degree qualifiers from the 20% most deprived areas there was a rise from 11.7% in 2013-14 to 13.9% in 2018-19 – up 2.2 percentage points, an increase of 18.8%
  • for all undergraduate course qualifiers from the 20% most deprived areas there was a rise from 16.1% in 2013-14 to 18.5% in 2018-19 – up 2.4 percentage points, an increase of 14.9%.

Steady, good progress across the board – so nothing for the voters in Scotland to be informed of here?

In the context of widening access and the related issue of equality of opportunity – and looking to the future – it’s worth recalling the following observations made in an OECD research report on Scottish school education in 2021.

Source: OECD (2021), Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future, Implementing Education Policies, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/bf624417-en

On analysis of ‘equity’ the OECD concludes: ‘Studentssocio-economic status has a relatively small impact on their performance in Scotland, compared to other OECD countries and economies. The extent of socio-economic disparities in academic performance indicates whether an education system helps promote equality of opportunities.

in Scotland, studentssocio-economic status had relatively little impact on their reading performance than other OECD countries. In 2018, the socio-economic status as measured by the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) explained only 8.6% of the difference in performance between students from the most and least advantaged backgrounds in Scotland. This means studentssocio-economic status had a smaller impact on their performance in Scotland than on average across the OECD, where the ESCS explained 12% of the difference in performance. The impact of studentssocio-economic status on their PISA performance in maths and science was also smaller in Scotland than on average in the OECD area, explaining 7.9% of the performance difference in maths, compared to 13.8% on average, and 10.1% of the performance difference in science compared to 12.8% on average.’

So notable positives about Scotland’s education system?  And yes, always more that could and should be improved, nonetheless encouraging for the future? But if so, they are being ignored by the media and seemingly denied by (so called) left of centre political opponents of the Scottish Government.


3 thoughts on “Widening access to higher education – Scotland’s progress

  1. Ah, but ….. that is because of ‘dumbing down’ some journalist will claim, based on no evidence other than overhearing a teacher in a pub on a Friday evening.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And all that,if such good progressive matters continue then such will translate very well into
      1.Higher productivity
      2.Higher GDP / head of poulation
      Then all the benefits that shall flow from such
      From the end of the Credit
      Republic of Ireland productivity up 55% ( yes 55 %)
      UK 1.1 %
      Ah but never forget that indeed we are truly “Better Together” are we not

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I did notice that the report seemed to disappear without trace. If I had not seen something about it on Twitter I would not have known anything about it.

    The figures Stewartb quotes are pretty much in line with a report issued by UCAS in Feb 2018. In that report they analysed all the applications for the period 2006 to 2018 from England, Wales, Scotland and NI using the POLAR3 definition of advantaged/disadvantaged which is slightly different from the definition used by the SG. Not withstanding that the figures were comparable and also cover the last year or so of the Labour/LibDem Coalition.

    The analysis showed that in 2006, 9.6% of university applications came from the most disadvantaged pupils. By 2018 this had risen to 17.8% i.e almost doubled. NB a third of Scottish pupils who go to University do not apply via UCAS.
    The ratio of applications from the most advantaged to the most disadvantaged was 4.5 to 1 in 2006. By 2018 the ratio had narrowed to 2.6 to 1 and, as UCAS noted, that narrowing was due to the increase in applications from pupils in the most disadvantaged group. Therefore efforts of the SG to narrow the attainment gap was working.

    So two reports from different sources show a similar pattern. Critics might try to dismiss or question the impartiality of the SFC report but would be hard put to do the level the same snide criticisms to the UCAS report which is probably why that one was also ignored.

    I think this link should take you to the report


    Liked by 1 person

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