Increasing number of Scottish university students from deprived backgrounds requires a change in how deprivation is defined

Dr Kirsty Conlon, Head of Learning, Teaching and Widening Access has shared her thoughts in The Scotsman on the journey that Scottish universities will take to achieve the 2030 target of 20% of all students entering university will come from the nation’s 20% most deprived areas. She also outlines the challenges that will be faced on this journey.

“The higher education sector has made significant progress to reach the 2030 target that 20 per cent of Scottish students entering university will be from the nation’s 20 per cent most deprived areas. New data published today offers reasons to celebrate including confirmation that the interim target of 16 per cent has been reached.

Scotland has the most progressive admission policies in the UK thanks to actions taken by universities. However, the rest of the journey is going to be the hardest mile. It’s going to be hard because Scotland’s measurement for success is imprecise. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) identifies areas, not individuals, making it useful as a national measure. But not everyone in a deprived area is individually deprived, and not all deprived individuals live in multiply-deprived areas.

This means we need an additional way of measuring eligibility for widening access. We believe the two most credible possibilities for an income-based measurement would be receipt of free school meals or the new Scottish Child Payment. Doing so would not be controversial: a Scottish Government working group first recommended the use of free schools meals data alongside SIMD in 2019. Since then, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) has added free school meals for applications made in England and Wales, so there’s a real risk of losing ground on the progressive strides already taken.

Recently the Scottish Government reconstituted a group to look at using data on receipt of free schools meals and the Scottish Child Payment. Universities are a part of it and we hope to see key decisions taken by the end of 2023. We must ensure Scotland implements a new measure, despite any technical difficulties.

Additionally, work is required to get a measure that ensures lifelong learning is a reality, not an aspiration. We also need to ensure that part-time learners – many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds and with demanding care responsibilities – are not forgotten when we talk about widening access.

Universities have met the interim targets, based on the existing SIMD metric, so there’s no question that this is about changing the goalposts. The 2030 target could be recalibrated, as needed, reflecting that Scottish education is different from a decade ago. We need to be measuring what counts, not just counting what we measure.”