Opinion: What progress has Scotland seen on widening participation?

Monday 10 October 2022

Professor Steve Olivier
William Hardie, Policy Advisor to the Principal and the Executive, and Professor Steve Olivier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, write in Wonkhe about widening access and participation in higher education.

Widening access to higher education is a priority for universities throughout the UK, and not least in Scotland.

Back in 2014, the Scottish Government established the Commission on Widening Access to advise Scottish Ministers on the achievement of the ambition that children from Scotland’s most deprived communities should, by the time they leave school, have the same chance of accessing higher education as children from our least deprived communities.

The Commission’s final report, A Blueprint for Fairness was published in 2016. It contained 34 recommendations, all of which were accepted by the Scottish Government. This included the key target that by 2030 students from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds should represent 20 per cent of entrants to higher education.

And, as a staging post, by 2021 students from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 10 per cent of full-time first-degree entrants to every individual Scottish university.


As a direct result of the report, the role of the Commissioner for Fair Access was established by the Scottish Government to provide systemic leadership and coordination on widening access to higher education, and to provide regular and independent analysis of progress towards meeting the targets for fair access. Peter Scott was appointed Scotland’s first Commissioner for Fair Access in 2016, a role from which he retired in June 2022, following the publication of his fifth, and final, progress report, Maintaining the Momentum Towards Fair Access.

In common with many universities across the UK, our institution, Robert Gordon University in north-east Scotland is committed to widening and extending access to higher education, regardless of an individual’s background or circumstance. The university undertakes a wide range of activity throughout the region and beyond to make higher education accessible to a broad range of learners.

This includes our new “hub” model of school engagement. Through this approach, university staff are embedded within nine regional high schools, working directly with teachers and learners, including those furthest from higher education to support a positive journey to university. As a result of this sustained engagement, we have seen significant growth in our widening participation programmes, including a 211 per cent increase in the number of learners participating in our Access To programme which offers subject-focused support sessions for learners in the senior years of secondary school.

SIMD isn’t everything

But despite our considerable efforts to make a university education accessible to learners from all backgrounds, the university struggles to meet the narrowly-defined target set by the Commission on Widening Access. This demands that students from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds, as identified through the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) should represent at least 10 per cent of full-time first-degree entrants to every individual Scottish university.

This raises a significant question mark over the appropriateness of SIMD for measuring progress on fair access across Scottish universities.

The nub of the issue is that reliance is placed on one indicator only for identifying disadvantaged learners and for measuring universities’ progress on widening access. SIMD is, however, a very blunt tool. As an area-based measure, it cannot distinguish between deprived and non-deprived individuals living in areas classified as low/high deprivation.

In particular, it takes no account of regional differences. There is a smaller number of SIMD20 postcodes in the North of Scotland compared with other regions. The majority of SIMD20 school leavers are located across the central belt of Scotland, notably within the Greater Glasgow area.

This presents significant challenges for universities in North-East Scotland and in the Highlands and Islands as it means they are very reliant on recruiting SIMD20 students from outside the region in order to try to meet widening access targets based on SIMD. In the case of Robert Gordon University, we have an annual target of recruiting approximately 240 SIMD20 students but we would expect only around 50 to come from within the region.

The current approach, defined by SIMD, means that the diversity of universities’ efforts to widen access to university is not fully recognised. It also risks perverse consequences as universities seek to meet their narrowly-defined institutional targets.

A real case for change

In the final report from the outgoing Commissioner for Fair Access, he declared that “institutional SIMD targets are no longer fit-for-purpose”. The Commissioner recommends that institutions, with oversight from the Scottish Funding Council, should be able to use a basket of measures to assess progress on widening access.

We are pleased that the case for change advocated by our university and others has been accepted by the Commissioner. Implementation of the Commissioner’s recommendation would provide for a much more comprehensive, relevant, agile and fairer approach to assessing and recognising institutions’ progress towards fair access.

Since no single indicator is entirely satisfactory as a measure of disadvantage, applying a basket of measures would provide a more holistic and inclusive approach. It would allow individualised measures, for example, registration for Free School Meals to be used as an indicator of deprivation in institutional targets, thereby enabling a wider group of learners to benefit from access support to higher education. The Commissioner’s recommended approach would help recognise the totality of universities’ efforts on widening access. This includes the sector’s work with low-progression schools, our support for care experienced applicants and articulation pathways developed between colleges and universities.

It is entirely appropriate that universities are held to account for what they are doing to widen access to higher education but it is critically important that those accountability measures are robust and inclusive and, ultimately, help to deliver on our shared ambitions for widening access.

To enable this progressive approach to setting targets and assessing progress on widening access, we would urge the Scottish Government to accept and implement the Commissioner’s recommendation. With a new Commissioner for Fair Access in Scotland to be appointed shortly, it is important that the Scottish Government set out soon its response to Peter Scott’s recommendations.

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