University students from underrepresented backgrounds highlight importance of the access agenda and the need to achieve the 2030 access goals

Universities Scotland, which represents Scotland’s 19 universities and higher education institutions, has today (Monday, 15 April) unveiled a new campaign on widening access, called “40 Faces”. The campaign gives a platform for 40 non-traditional students and graduates to share their experience of university and set out their perspectives on what is key to achieving Scotland’s access targets by 2030. Scotland’s universities are working towards the goal that by 2030, 20% of Scottish entrants to university will be from the 20% most socioeconomically disadvantaged postcode areas.  

“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 the interim milestone of 16% in 2021 and introducing the most progressive admissions policies in the UK, in support of this goal. 

However, in the last two years progress has plateaued. Universities have had to overcome even bigger challenges in the form of lost learning in schools due to the Pandemic, a stubbornly high attainment gap across Scotland and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis. The resources universities have available to invest in widening access activities, and retention support for students, has also fallen in real terms.  

“40 Faces” focuses on the real-world experience of the people at the heart of the access agenda, not just the statistics. It concentrates on key priorities for the next six years and aims to galvanise all stakeholders, including the Scottish Government and Parliament, in this shared goal.  

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

The polling data is a strong fit with the themes emerging from the lived experience of 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. 

The 40 Faces in the campaign reflect the diversity of underrepresented students including: students from the most deprived 20% of postcodes; those from low-participation schools; students with care experience and/or estranged from their families. It also includes mature learners, those who have progressed to university through a college route and those who have gone to university after years in the workforce. 

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.” 

Shemaa Abdullah, 40 Face nominee and University of Dundee student said: 

“I arrived in the UK aged 17, just weeks before I was due to take my final school exams and thought my dream of attending university to study Dentistry was unreachable. The University of Dundee’s REACH programme offered me hope, supporting me to secure a place on my course. I managed to survive a war, a pandemic, and so many other challenges but continued to persevere and work hard to achieve my dream. I am extremely proud to be included in the Universities Scotland 40 Faces campaign and want to inspire others to realise what you can accomplish through the toughest of times.”   

William Torrie, 40 Faces nominee, Queen Margaret University Graduate said:  

“Scotland has ambitious widening access targets and to achieve those, I think there should be a greater focus on partnerships between institutions and industries. By leveraging each other’s reach and experience, you can showcase a variety of learning pathways for school- and college-leavers and mature applicants alike, who have studied either full-time or part-time on-campus or online in academia, or through vocational training or apprenticeships. Variety and flexibility are the stuff of life, and our higher education system should aspire to reflect that.” 

Jamie Dalgoutte, 40 Faces nominee, University of Glasgow said: 

“The Widening Participation team at Glasgow offered me invaluable support, throughout the entirety of my degree including applying for scholarships and discretionary funding when I needed additional finances. I struggled massively with my finances during university as a care experienced adult, but the Widening Participation team helped me when I needed it and without delay. They were there whenever I needed them and made me feel cared for.” 




Survey findings are based on bespoke consumer research conducted by Censuswide among 609 UK graduates of a nationally representative make up who achieved their degree in Scotland. The research was conducted between 05/03/2024 and 18/03/2024 for UK graduates. All respondents were sourced using an accredited online research access panel. Graduates were asked if they considered themselves to be from a range of underrepresented groups related to widening access.  

For more information on the survey data, please contact the UUK team at MHP Group:  

  • The 2030 access goals were set in a report called Blueprint for Fair Access, published in 2016. 
  • Scotland’s universities led change to introduce the most progressive admissions policies to university in the UK. All universities with entry criteria (the Open University has an open admissions policy) now have contextual admissions, minimum entry requirements for applicants with contextual flags and will make a guaranteed offer to an applicant with care experience who meets the minimum entry requirements.