COVID-19 will not derail universities’ progress on widening access

New data on widening access to university, published by the Scottish Funding Council today, confirms that universities are on track to reach a significant milestone of progress by 2021 and provides a timely opportunity for universities to signal that COVID-19 will not be allowed to derail progress on widening access.

The data show that 15.9% of Scottish-domiciled entrants to full-time first degrees in academic year 2018/19 were from the 20% most disadvantaged areas (known as SIMD20). Universities are working towards an interim goal of reaching 16% of entrants from SIMD20 areas by 2021.

Commenting on the figures, Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland, said:

“These figures bring good news in that they confirm that universities are ahead of schedule in their work to widen access. The year 2021 is the first key milestone for measuring progress and today’s figures show that universities are within just 0.1% of the 2021 goal that 16% of entrants should from the poorest areas across Scotland, based on data captured two full years ahead of the milestone. It’s also very positive to see such a big increase in students with care experience starting university.

“The timing of today’s data is helpful as it gives universities an opportunity to be very clear that whilst COVID-19 has disrupted almost every aspect of normal life, Principals will not allow COVID-19 to derail progress on widening access to university. Schools and universities are operating under far from normal circumstances right now but widening access remains a priority. University leaders have made widening access a feature of the constructive conversations we have had with the SQA over the last few weeks as it plans alternative arrangements to the school exam diet. Scotland’s universities put a suite of new measures in place for this admissions cycle which were designed to help applicants from a range of backgrounds and accelerate widening access, including minimum entry requirements for applicants with care experience and the poorest 20% of households. Those measures remain in place and we hope to see no interruption to progress towards the 2021 widening access goals.”

Long-term the goal is for the Scottish university sector to get to 20% of Scottish-domiciled entrants from SIMD20 areas by 2030.


The data published today also provide figures on the number of entrants with care experience, on retention rates and on entry, retention and qualifiers by protected characteristics such as gender and race/ethnicity. The number of entrants with care experience starting full-time first degrees increased from 255 to 320 in just one year.

The data show mixed progress on retention. After years of steady improvement on retention, the overall retention rate for all students has slipped a little this year (from 92.5% last year to 91.1% in 2018/19) and the retention rate for SIMD20 students has also slipped (from 89.4% to 86.8%). However, the figures present a complex picture as retention rates for more privileged cohorts of students have also slipped whilst the retention rate for care experienced students has improved (from 85.6% to 90.9%).

Reflecting on the retention data, Alastair Sim said:

“The data on retention is interesting and needs further interrogation. It’s clearly not as simple as saying that widening access leads to a fall in retention rates as the Funding Council’s data shows that care experienced applicants out-perform the average rate and there’s progress in the number of qualifiers from the 20% most disadvantaged areas. We’ll reflect carefully on the data and what it tells us.”

The Scottish Funding Council’s Report on Widening Access 2018-19 statistical publication is published annually and can be found on its website.