Working to Widen Access

15 actions that will create the potential for a big step forward in widening access

Scotland’s universities have set out 15 actions they will take over the next few years that will create the potential for a big step forward in widening access.

The Commission for Widening Access (CoWA) made 34 recommendations in its Blueprint for Fairness in 2016, of which 13 were directly or indirectly for universities to act on. We believe our 15 actions do this.

Taken together, they hold the potential to make a significant contribution to the First Minister’s goal that by 2030 students from the most deprived 20% of backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education.

Highlights from Working to Widen Access include:
  • A commitment that universities will work together to achieve consistency and greater clarity in the language used to describe contextualised admissions and other access initiatives, including articulation and bridging programmes.
  • A commitment to set minimum entry requirements for all undergraduate courses by 2019 for entrants starting in 2020/21.
  • Guaranteed offers for care experienced applicants who meet minimum entry requirements.
  • A commitment that universities will use a consistent core of contextual indicators in their admissions.
  • A commitment that every university will undertake a fundamental review of its ability to increase the number of students who articulate direct into the second or third year of university, giving full credit to their existing qualification.
  • Action to improve the national coherence of bridging programmes into university making it easier for schools and pupils to benefit.
  • A fully inclusive approach to delivering this set of actions, which will be developed and tested with learners, teachers, colleges, student associations and others.

University admissions

Scottish higher education was already ahead of the curve on admissions as every university with entry requirements was already using contextual information in their approach to admissions. The working group has taken Scotland another big step forward in the way that universities act on this information.

From 2019 universities will set minimum entry requirements for all courses, which may be offered to students who meet clearly defined contextual indicators. This will apply to entrants starting in 2020/21. This action will deliver on one of the early targets in the Commission’s Blueprint for Fairness and the first target set directly for universities.

I welcome the planning in making transparent and accessible all the pathways for all who are able to access university courses. As a Guidance Teacher, I look forward to the development of appropriate one-stop websites and databases informing the student, teacher and parent/ carer, and to the increased partnership working between secondary and tertiary education, which will enable me to offer the highest level of support to all of our students.

Maria Rawluk
Pupil Support Leader
Drummond Community High School

“Scotland is taking a big step forward with contextualised admissions in a concerted bid to widen access at a faster rate. Universities will set minimum entry requirements for all courses: we will be very clear to whom this applies; and, we will use consistent, user-friendly language to describe the process. We want to ensure that all potential applicants from disadvantaged and non-traditional backgrounds understand that they are welcome, supported and belong at the heart of our universities.”

Professor Sally Mapstone, Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of St Andrews. Professor Mapstone led the working group on university admissions.

There are 4 themes that connect all 15 actions

1. The need for greater clarity and consistency in the terms and language universities use when it comes to widening access.

Applying to university is challenging. There are many options and different entry requirements. The ‘labels’ given to good initiatives like contextualised admissions and articulation are not user-friendly; they may vary by institution, and are not well understood by the very people who need to use them.

We will change this by developing a common language used by universities.

2. The need for our actions to be taken forward with potential learners as well as for potential learners.

Universities are taking these actions because they believe they are the right things to do and believe that they will make a difference. But we will not let that stand untested. We will make learner experience and user feedback from relevant groups a core part of the way we implement these actions.

3. The need to establish robust data and share it between organisations with a role in widening access.

A lot of highly relevant data is now collected by universities, the Scottish Funding Council, the Scottish Government and other partners with a role in access. It is really important that we share that data and make best use of it to inform the decisions we take about widening access and to track and evaluate progress.

Universities will be empowered to make bolder decisions if they have the confidence in the data and evidence to support them. We will press the Scottish Government to introduce a Unique Learner Number in Scotland as CoWA recommended. This would enable end-to-end tracking of learners who meet access criteria, supporting more effective long-term evaluation. We see great benefits for a scheme of this nature.

4. Work on the learner journey in Scotland. The Scottish Government has been leading a closely-related project to look at the learner journey between the ages of 15 and 24 through school, college, and university.

This has been running in parallel to our work on widening access. Our detailed submission of evidence to the learner journey review has stressed that any reforms proposed by that review must enhance wide access to higher education.

We have also stressed that the learner journey policy-making – as with widening access to higher education – needs to better recognise and include mature students as well as part-time study.

“There is a will and a shared commitment amongst Principals to push beyond what we have already been doing to widen access, to work with the latest evidence and respond with new ways of doing things. I believe our actions hold the key elements that will make a real difference.”

Professor Andrea Nolan
Convener of Universities Scotland


The working group on articulation led the first ever analysis of articulation by subject. It found that depending on subject studied, there is wide disparity in the number of students articulating into university and the number of students who are given full credit for their Higher National qualifications.

This breakthrough analysis has created new understandings and provided new directions for work to continue. The working group has committed universities to undertake a fundamental review of their ability to increase the number and percentage of students who articulate with full credit at their institution. This will put articulation on a more sustainable footing as currently only six universities and eight colleges deliver 80 per cent of all articulation.

Another early priority will be for Universities Scotland to co-create a new National Articulation Forum with Colleges Scotland with strategic input from NUS Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council to take this forward in a joined-up way, to share practice, continue analysis and to look at expanding the model of articulation into other qualifications

There seems to be a lot of issues with awareness and understanding of articulation with teachers and students. I think it is very important to look at how many routes there are in articulation from college to university and how institutions can increase their numbers.

Hazel Pike
HN Student

“Our goal was to find ways to give more students doing Higher Nationals full credit and advanced entry into university. We want this to be a productive route to help widen access. Right now, only 50% of HN students get full credit and we want to give students better odds than that. We also want to move to a situation where every university is making a contribution to articulation.

Ms Susan Stewart
Director of the Open University in Scotland. Ms Stewart led the working group on articulation.

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