Widening access success as record number of students enter university

  • Interim targets on widening access met
  • Increased numbers of widening access, care experienced and disabled students entering university
  • An increase in the proportion of students coming to university from college

Universities Scotland has welcomed the release of the Report on Widening Access 2021-22 by the Scottish Funding Council.

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

“More students from disadvantaged backgrounds are attending university and this is great for the students themselves, universities and the nation as a whole.

“Against a backdrop of the legacy impact of the pandemic and the persistent attainment gap in schools, the higher education sector has continued to widen access to university to entrants from the most deprived areas of Scotland. In addition, we are seeing more care experienced people enter university and more people confident in disclosing they have a disability.

“Having a diverse student population is something to be celebrated as we continue towards the 20% target of entrants from the 20% most disadvantaged backgrounds by 2030.”

Scotland’s universities are working towards a 2030 target for the education system that 20% of Scottish university entrants should be comprised of students coming from the 20% most-disadvantaged backgrounds (also referred to as SIMD20 data zones).

Universities had already passed, a year ahead of schedule, the interim target set by the 2016 Commission on Widening Access that 16% of entrants should be from SIMD20 backgrounds. Today’s data released reconfirms that achievement.

Some positive headlines from the data release include:

  • Overall, there were 5,595 entrants from SIMD20 backgrounds at university in 2021/22 compared to 5,515 in 2020/21, an increase of 80 students.
  • The gap between the average retention rate for all students and the retention rate for students from SIMD20 areas narrowed to 2.9% in 2021/22 from 3.3% in 2020/21 with 88.6% of SIMD20 students successfully continuing their studies.
  • The number of care experienced students continues to rise, with 545 students entering university in 2021/22 (from 485 in 2020/21). This follows the 2019 move by all universities in Scotland to introduce a guarantee regarding admissions to all care experienced students who meet minimum entry requirements.
  • The number of entrants declaring a disability has increased, standing at 17.4% of new students  in 2021/22 compared to 16.3% of entrants with a declared disability in 2020/21.
  • Another success has been the increase in number of students entering university via college. More students than ever (8,690 compared to 7,490 last year) were able to use their HN qualification to enter university. More of these entrants were able to articulate with Advanced Standing (4,705 compared to 4,430).  Articulation into university without repeating levels of study, into second or third year of a degree is a crucial part of widening access.

Whilst the Scottish Funding Council’s Report on Widening Access 2021-22 is positive and celebrates increased numbers of university entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds, it notes a marginal change in their proportion within the overall population of university entrants, with the proportion of SIMD20 students dropping from 16.7% in 2020/21 to 16.5% in 2021/22.

Acknowledging this issue, Alastair Sim commented: 

“We are concerned that the ‘final mile’ to the 2030 target for widening access will be by far the hardest. 

“Universities have made significant progress to widen access, acting on the areas within their control. However, systemic challenges like the poverty-related attainment gap in schools remain stubbornly persistent and the legacy of the pandemic means universities must offer greater levels of academic and pastoral support to students to help them overcome this period of major disruption to their compulsory education.

“We need action from Government to keep building on progress. One cost-neutral measure from Government would be to deliver an additional, person-centred access metric this calendar year, so that government policy addresses circumstances of disadvantage wider than living in an SIMD 20 neighbourhood. We need policy to prioritise targeting outreach and support at all the individuals who most need it.”