Futures not Backgrounds

Universities get to work to widen participation to higher education

We believe that higher education should be and can be about people’s futures, not backgrounds.

The university sector is fully committed to the First Minister’s ambition to see that every child, irrespective of socio-economic background, has an equal chance of entering university.

Universities Scotland has welcomed the recent report from the Commission on Widening Access, A Blueprint for Fair Access, which sets out a series of recommendations on how that ambition might be realised.

The Commission, Chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, was clear that we will be successful in changing things if action is taken at all levels of education and by all relevant partners and stakeholders. This is a view we share, support and believe is achievable.

Our document Futures Not Backgrounds summarises an initial set of actions for Scotland’s higher education institutions to deliver.

The set of actions to be delivered by higher education institutions

We have identified three areas that we are starting work on straight away and which address many of the recommendations in the Blueprint for Fair Access report.

1. Admissions: A system of admissions that does more to level the playing field for applicants 

University leaders will review their admissions policies and procedures to ensure that they provide more opportunities to recognise and reward the talent and potential of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. The goal is to do more to level the playing field for applicants from underrepresented backgrounds. Key considerations in this review will be consistency in the use of contextual admissions, adjusted offers and awareness raising amongst applicants, their teachers, parents and carers.

2. Making bridging and other access programmes transferable across Scotland

There are a great many access programmes and bridging programmes in place across Scotland. They are a way of providing confidence, for the student and the university, that the candidate has what it takes to do well in university and to get them off to a good start in their course.

There is scope to improve how transferable these access programmes are so that learners can move more freely between them and progress to different institutions having taken part in one. This would mean that people’s opportunities are not limited by where they live and what they can, or cannot, access close to home. Principals will take this forward, working with expert practitioners in the sector and those leading existing access programmes and in consultation with teachers and others.

3. Building on articulation from college

Articulation from college is a fast-growing route into university that offers an alternative from the more conventional route from school via an application through UCAS.

Our goal is to see more students given full credit for their HN qualifications and progress more quickly through HE for those students who want it. Another goal is to increase the number of articulation routes between courses. It will be important to monitor the characteristics of students using articulation routes to ensure this is contributing to the over-arching access goals.

Additional priority action

We want to look as broadly as possible at who should be the subject of widening access priorities. The Blueprint sets out a 15-year plan with milestones to 2030. Scotland cannot afford to wait until 2030 to get it right for groups of underrepresented students who do not fit into the SIMD20 category.

“The Commissions’s recommendations require every partner in the system to go deeper…. Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions have already started that process in well chosen, strategic areas with pleasing speed.”

Dame Ruth Silver

An inclusive definition of under-representation

We remain concerned that many learners who experience various forms of deprivation do not come from the postcode areas that are identified as the most-deprived communities.

The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation is the focus at the moment. It suffers from a number of widely acknowledged weaknesses but it has the advantage of being used across school, college and university levels of education. However, it is still no substitute for the development of more sensitive ways of measuring individual disadvantage.

Students with protected characteristics and mature students need to be given full consideration in the new Framework and by the Commissioner. There are access issues in part-time learning and at postgraduate level too.

Key Points:

  • The HE sector welcomes the recommendations in the Blueprint for Fair Access, and is embarking on a plan of work to take forward recommendations in the areas of: fair admission, bridging programmes and articulation.
  • Our 19 HEIs have strong partnerships with the other key stakeholders needed to deliver the WA agenda: schools, colleges and local authorities. We will build on these partnerships to deliver the First Minister’s ambition.


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