Long Read: Higher Education in Scotland and England –

system differences and scope for misrepresentation

(C) Universities Scotland

By stewartb – a long read

It is commonplace for commentators favouring an ‘SNPbad’ story to make negative criticisms of the governance of education in Scotland. This may include highly selective use of statistics on higher education course applications and acceptances. These are exploited to draw (supposedly) unfavourable comparisons with England and by implication, to point to better governance by Westminster.  Context is typically absent: what follows is an attempt to fill some of the void.

Differences in standards of provision

When news relating to higher education in Scotland is reported, it tends to be based on data from UCAS, the UK-wide charity providing information, advice, and admissions services. However, UCAS’ activities – and its data – for Scotland relate to universities: they do NOT include the college sector which also provides higher education qualifications.  This confirmation appears on the UCAS website:

In Scotland, there is a substantial section of provision, representing around a third of young full-time undergraduate study in Scotland, that is not included in UCAS’ figures. For people living in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, UCAS covers the overwhelming majority of full-time undergraduate provision. (my emphasis)

See https://www.ucas.com/data-and-analysis/undergraduate-statistics-and-reports/ucas-undergraduate-sector-level-end-cycle-data-resources-2021

In short, the ‘systems’ of higher education provision in England and Scotland are NOT the same.  Here are some further examples of important differences.

UCAS analyses first degree course application acceptances by different categories of university. It divides the sector into low, medium and high tariff institutions, the ‘tariff’ essentially being a measure of the standard of qualifications (expressed as ‘UCAS points’) that different universities require for an application to be successful.

In its advice to prospective students we learn: ‘UCAS Tariff points translate your qualifications and grades into a numerical value. Many qualifications (but not all) have a UCAS Tariff value, which will vary dependent on the qualification size, and the grade you achieved. This numerical value is used by HE course providers to assess whether you meet their entry requirements for a particular course.’ In general, it is easier to be accepted into a lower tariff institution.

Importantly, UCAS reports that Scotland has NO low tariff universities!

One source of collated information on ranking of universities by entry standard (by average UCAS score) is the ‘Complete University Guide for the UK’.

Source: https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/league-tables/rankings?sortby=entry-standards

The Guide for 2022 lists 130 UK universities by average entry standard (based on UCAS’ tariffs) from high to low. Fourteen Scottish universities are in the UK list. On this basis, the lowest Scottish institution is ranked 48 out of the 130! Five of Scotland’s universities are in the top ten in terms of highest entry standards, nine in the top twenty.  England has a long tail of low tariff institutions absent from Scotland.

What UCAS reports

It is instructive to examine UCAS’ comparative national data taken from the end of the 2021 undergraduate application cycle for all UK universities, the latest available. The charts below are reproduced from the information-rich UCAS  website.

Analysing the data in the chart above:

  • change in scale of annual number of England-domiciled applicants since 2022 = +11.6%
  • change in scale of annual number of Scotland-domiciled applicants since 2012 = +22.2%.

Spotting signs of a failing education system in Scotland? (Note the relatively minor changes in number of applicants over the same period in NI and Wales.)

Applicants are an indication of interest, aspiration and demand for a university education. The next chart shows data on successful applications.

Analysing the data on accepted applicants in the chart above:

  • change in annual number of England-domiciled accepted applicants since 2012 = +85,765 (+21.1%)
  • change in annual number of Scotland-domiciled accepted applicants since 2012 =   +8,400 (+27.1%)
  • change in annual number of Wales-domiciled accepted applicants since 2012 = +1,035 (+5.4%).

Signs of a failing or a poorly supported education system in Scotland?

And just to recap: (i) the bulk of the Scottish-domiciled students will have been qualified to enter medium and high tariff universities; and (ii) these figures don’t include, as UCAS acknowledges, ‘around a third of young full-time undergraduate study in Scotland’ within the college sector.


One metric that gets media attention – if it can be framed to further an ‘SNPbad’ agenda – is the degree to which in Scotland there is a greater discrepancy than elsewhere in the UK between educational attainment in the most and least disadvantaged communities. The UCAS data provide a further insight into the truth or otherwise of such unfavourable claims.

UCAS opts to consider the issue of access to higher education UK-wide by using POLAR (Participation of Local Areas) groupings. This classifies young people from across the UK into five equal-sized groups according to how many from an area have in the past participated in higher education.

(The 20% of areas with the lowest participation rates are designated as ‘quintile 1’, the highest 20% are ‘quintile 5’ and everywhere else is somewhere in between. POLAR4 was calculated using data on students who began their studies between 2009-10 and 2013-14. It is the most recent version of POLAR. For universities in Scotland, an additional classification, the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, is provided in widening access statistics but this does not permit cross UK comparisons.)

The big table below, again reproduced from UCAS, shows the number of accepted applicants to universities by national domicile, and broken down by POLAR4 quintiles and by annual cohort, since 2012.

Firstly, for those concerned about potential unintended or other negative consequences of widening access note that since 2012 the annual number of university acceptances for Scottish-domiciled students has increased substantially in every POLAR4 quintile.  In the highest participation category, POLAR4 quintile 5, the annual figure in 2021 is 17.5% higher than in 2012. In both Wales and NI the 2021 figure for quintile 5 is lower in 2012.

The table below gives the results of a sub-set of UCAS’ findings derived by calculation using the above data set. It focuses just on comparing Quintile 1 and 5 data for England- and Scotland-domiciled students. Other useful comparisons could be made.

 QUINTILENumber of accepted applicants: 2012Number of accepted applicants: 2021% change
England1 – area of lowest participation rate41,73556,03534%
 5 – area of highest participation rate101,310118,55517%
Scotland1 – area of lowest participation rate1,6502,69563%
 5 – area of highest participation rate12,91515,18017.5%

Signs of a failing, unfair, regressing education system in Scotland?

Once again It is highly relevant when interpreting relative differences to recall that in England these changes occur within a system with a very long ‘tail’ of low tariff universities. In Scotland change is occurring ONLY with medium and high tariff institutions. And to repeat, these UCAS data tell us nothing about the overall scale of, nor the changes in, access to higher education in Scotland via the college sector i.e. to  ‘around a third of young full-time undergraduate study in Scotland’.


A key feature now of Scotland’s higher education system is the closer relationship between – and progression from – achievement of qualifications in a college and subsequent entry to an undergraduate degree courses in a university. This is known as ‘articulation’. The recent Scottish Funding Council report on widening access shows the following:

  • in 2020-21, 11,780 students enrolled at a university on a first-degree course in Scotland having previously achieved an HNC or HND qualification at college
  • of that cohort, 7,665 students entered university first-degree courses in 2020-21 with an HNC/D qualification achieved through a college education in the last three years
  • of those, 4,470 (58.3%) entered university straight into year 2 (if they held an HNC) or straight to year 3 (if they held an HND) – known as Articulation with Advanced Standing

Source: https://www.sfc.ac.uk/publications-statistics/statistical-publications/2022/SFCST062022.aspx

More evidence of a failing education system? Hardly!

End note

In a slight digression but still relevant to an examination of difference, I’d like to share IMHO a remarkable graph supplied by the House of Commons Library (HoCL).

Source: HoCL (19 November 2021 ) Higher education funding in England.

The same HoCL report on HE funding in England explains:

  1. Support through the funding council for teaching fell even before the 2012 reforms and was cut particularly quickly from 2012 to 2015. The 2020-21 total for teaching is 78% below the 2010-11 figure in real terms.’ (my emphasis)
  2. ‘The cash value of all student loans has increased from below £6 billion in 2011-12 to more than £17 billion in 2019-20 and is forecast to be more than £21 billion in 2024-25.’

And then interestingly on loans:

  • ‘The ultimate cost to the public sector is currently thought to be around 54% of the face value of loans to full-time undergraduates. This subsidy element of loans was not included in the Governments main measure of public spending on services for some years and hence did not count towards the fiscal deficit. Recently an estimate of this subsidy has been included in overall UK public borrowing again. There is considerable uncertainty about the final size of the subsidy element of loans.’

So I have a technical query on the public financing implications of this for the Barnett Formula and Scotland. Is this marked shift in England – from government funding of higher education tuition to direct funding by individual students who take out enabling loans of which c.50% may never be repaid – proving disadvantageous to Scotland’s public finances? Anyone?


8 thoughts on “Long Read: Higher Education in Scotland and England –

  1. Brilliant thanks Stewart. As ever will use this to dismantle some of the negativity that spews from Unionists about our education system.


  2. Stewart, poss typo alert: On the last sentence of the para below the POLAR4 data table you’ve written “In both Wales and NI the 2021 figure for quintile 5 is lower in 2012 than in 2021.” For clarity shouldn’t that read “In both Wales and NI the 2021 figure for quintile 5 is lower than in 2012”?


    1. Indeed, thanks.. Well spotted – the lower number in 2021 is of course the whole point of the sentence! Aargh!


  3. In response to your last paragraph, and stressing I have no technical knowledge, I would venture to suggest that it is not just disadvantageous. It is deliberate, like so many of their tricks and devious practices.


  4. A long read right enough, but a fascinating exposure of the lie over “evidence of a failing education system”.

    Yet the irony of it all is that despite NOT knowing why it’s false, the public don’t believe it anyway – Scotland’s media lost public trust in much the same manner as did the Tories and Labour, one lie too many and scepticism follows.


  5. 25% mature students.

    30% from school. 25% mature students. 55%. One of the highest in the world.

    There were 15% EU students + foreign students.

    One of the highest ratios in the world. Canada has 56%.

    Scotland has more universities and colleges pro rata in the world. 15 universities per 5.4million population. On par with Finland. Rated one of the best.

    Scotland has less student debt than the rest of the UK. Education was cut £6Billion a year by the ConDems. Betraying students who were lied to by Clegg. Students are better funded in Scotland.

    Teachers should have more information on additional needs in their training.


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