Is Scotland Failing its Most Disadvantaged Students? On Widening Access to Higher Education

As a teacher of philosophy and classics at university level, the issue of widening access is of the utmost importance to me. Thinking about the world we live in, our place in it, and our relationship to antiquity is not an activity solely reserved for the upper classes, and the ability to think critically and evaluate arguments is more important today than ever. It's not just me that thinks this way - promoting participation and equality of opportunity for learners is enshrined in the the core values of the Higher Education Academy's UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education.

To this end, the SNP want 16 per cent of university entrants to come from the poorest communities by 2021 - an intermediary step on the way to the Scottish Government's goal that, by 2030, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education.

Today, however, the Scottish Funding Council released its Report on Widening Access 2016-17, exploring the data on whether Scottish students from disadvantaged backgrounds or marginalised groups are making it into university - and it doesn't look good.

In 2016/17, students entering university full-time from the 20% most deprived backgrounds has decreased 0.2% - from 14% down to 13.8%. And it's not just the percentage of the total which has gone down, but the number of actual students from the most deprived backgrounds attending, dropping from 4015 to 3965.

 Source: Scottish Funding Council Report on Widening Access 2016-17 SFC/ST/06/2018 page 7

Source: Scottish Funding Council Report on Widening Access 2016-17 SFC/ST/06/2018 page 7

That goal of reaching 16% by 2021 looks far off when the numbers are decreasing, rather than increasing. And it's not just the percentages decreasing, which are tied to the overall number of students entering higher education - it's the actual number of students from the most deprived backgrounds themselves.

The issue is worse here in Scotland than in the UK as a whole, it turns out. According to UCAS figures, whilst the number of students from the 20% most disadvantaged background across the UK (Quintile 1) have comprised a smaller percentage of the student population overall in the last few years, from a high of 10.71% in 2014 down to 10.64% in 2016, the actual numbers of students from these backgrounds participating in higher education has continued to increase. 

 Source: UCAS: DR2_037_01 Acceptances by POLAR3 (UK domiciled 18 year olds)

Source: UCAS: DR2_037_01 Acceptances by POLAR3 (UK domiciled 18 year olds)

Widening access to higher education is not merely about increasing the population of students from disadvantaged backgrounds as a percentage the whole - which, thanks to austerity in Westminster and Holyrood, both Scotland and the rest of the UK are failing at - but about increasing the real numbers of students who are able to access higher education.

Not only is the SNP Government not hitting its own targets for widening access to higher education - but it looks like Scotland is falling behind the UK as a whole when it comes to widening participation.

On the heels of the Scottish Funding Council's report, the Scottish Labour Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education, Iain Gray, gave the following comment:

Education was supposed to be the top priority for the SNP – instead Scotland is going backwards on widening access.

Students from poorer backgrounds are less likely to go to university, then the least likely to complete their course and the least likely to achieve honours. Rather than making any progress on this the SNP appears to be making it worse.
— Iain Gray, Scottish Labour Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education

More needs to be done to improve access to higher education, both in Scotland and across the UK. This includes improving the secondary and further education provisions that help students reach their educational goals. In the meantime, it's the students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who will suffer.