Students from underrepresented backgrounds highlight importance of access agenda

Monday 15 April 2024

Catriona Stevenson
The extraordinary stories of students who entered higher education from a non-traditional route is being highlighted in a new national campaign by Universities Scotland.

It features students and graduates from universities across the country, including those from Robert Gordon University (RGU) and University of Aberdeen.

Catriona Stevenson graduated from RGU last year after discovering the accessibility and reward of a Graduate Apprenticeship (GA) having never been to University before. In December, she graduated with a first-class GA degree in Business Management and was able to continue working full-time throughout her studies.

She said: “University wasn't initially a consideration for me as I faced challenges during my school years and lacked a clear direction in what I wanted to do. I discovered RGU Graduate Apprenticeships while exploring career development opportunities with my employer.

“Previous attempts to secure employment were often hindered by lack of a degree, and the GA program provided a unique opportunity to study while working, with the practical elements of the degree more suited to my learning style.

“I think the introduction of the Graduate Apprenticeship programs across universities will support young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to attend university allowing them to work and earn an income.”

Midwifery student Donna Morrison also featured in the campaign and reflected on her experience as an adult returner to education, first at NESCol before progressing on to RGU where she is a standout student.

RGU offers a wide range of widening access initiatives and its dedicated department continues to work in partnership with Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire schools through its ‘School Hub’ initiative that embeds academic staff in over 85% of the region’s local authority schools. Other projects, such as ‘Northern Lights’ and ‘Access To’ have had great success in attracting local secondary school pupils to the University.

The Universities Scotland ‘40 Faces’ campaign aims to champion the diversity and success of widening access programmes from universities and higher education institutions from across Scotland.

‘40 Faces’ launches with only six years left for Scotland to reach the fair access targets, originally set by the Commission for Fair Access in 2016 and supported by the Scottish Government and by universities themselves. Universities have made major strides towards the 20% target, hitting interim milestones in 2021 and introducing the most progressive admissions policies in the UK, in support of this goal.

However, with six years remaining to reach the targets in 2030 progress has plateaued in the face of mounting challenges including the legacy of lost-learning in schools during the pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis, and the persistent attainment gap in schools.

New polling, commissioned by Universities Scotland from Censuswide as part of the campaign, gives an insight into graduate attitudes towards widening access. When asked what factors are most important to widening access, over 600 graduates aged 24-40 who went to university in Scotland identified the following priorities:

  • 38% said diverse routes into university are important
  • 34% said that connections between schools, colleges and universities are key
  • 28% said increasing the amount of non-repayable grants and bursaries available to students during studies is important
  • 25% said investing more money in the education and wider support needs of each access student during their studies is important
  • 25% said improving attainment in schools is important to the access agenda

The polling data is a strong fit with the themes emerging from the lived experience as shared by the 40 Faces featured in the campaign. Four themes emerged most strongly, as key to making further progress. They are:

  • Start young on self-belief. Schools and universities must continue to cultivate a strong and inclusive sense of belonging amongst underrepresented communities.
  • Join things up. Achievement of the 2030 goals will only be possible with a holistic approach that sees progress at school, college and university level, including significant progress in the poverty-related attainment gap in schools.
  • No wrong path. Multiple routes into university need to be available to suit diverse needs and offer second chances and equal access to chances later in life.
  • Money matters. From the perspective of student finance, which focused more on non-repayable grants and bursaries, and the funding available to universities to support access initiatives and investment on a per student basis.

Commenting on the campaign, Claire McPherson, Director Universities Scotland said: “Participation in Scotland’s universities is at its most inclusive, and Scotland’s 19 universities and higher education institutions have truly shifted the dial on widening access. Admissions policies in Scotland are more progressive than anywhere else in the UK, with institutions working together for the benefit of people across the country, regardless of their route to university.

“Our universities are committed to widening access, however they cannot achieve this alone.  With our 40 Faces campaign, Universities Scotland want to galvanise the sector and Scottish Government towards the 2030 widening access target, through sharing the lived experience of students and graduates.

“Universities across Scotland continue to advocate for students from underrepresented communities, even in the face of the erosion of public investment in Scottish domiciled places at university.  Universities offer students opportunities to achieve their dreams of securing a higher education and the skills and career opportunities that follow, while also strengthening their self-belief, building confidence and offering a life-changing experience which cannot be found elsewhere.”

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