Scottish universities and colleges are making good progress in their efforts to widen access, with figures showing that a key national target has been met two years early.
According to a report from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), 16.4 per cent of people living north of the Border and starting a full-time degree course in 2019-20 came from the 20% most deprived areas.
The target, set in 2016, was for individuals from these districts to make up 16% of first degree entrants by 2021.
Looking specifically at Scottish colleges, which also run higher education courses, the 2019-20 statistics reveal that over a quarter of those enrolling were from the country’s most deprived neighbourhoods.
And, in a further sign of progress, the number of care-experienced people on their way to an HE qualification increased by more than 400 compared with the previous year.
James Dunphy, SFC Director for Access, Learning and Outcomes, said: “Widening access to higher education is incredibly important because it can disrupt cycles of deprivation and level up opportunities for under-represented groups in our society.
“We should celebrate the progress reflected in this report. However, the pandemic and the real-life experiences of students remind us that circumstances can change very quickly and that we need to constantly redefine the challenges of widening access and design systems that can flex to them.”
He added: “Responding better to the changing needs of learners and society is a key part of the recommendations in our review of Tertiary Education and Research, and we are preparing to work towards this with our partners.”
Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland, said: “Reaching our interim target two years ahead of schedule is testament to the actions taken by universities to ensure that regardless of background, you can get to and thrive at university.
“From the sector working together to change admissions which make them the most progressive in the UK, to our commitment to care experienced learners, to universities’ close work with schools and colleges, today’s positive results have been driven by the hard work of both universities and learners.
“It has been a challenging year for all, but we know the pandemic hasn’t impacted all of society in an equal manner. We still not do know the full impact of COVID-19 on people’s education, but the university sector will remain committed to widening access and helping people of all backgrounds reach their potential.”
Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Higher Education, Further Education, Youth Employment and Trainin, welcomed the figures.
“All learners should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential regardless of background or circumstances, so it is great to see the number of Scots from the most deprived areas at university hit a record high in 2019-20,” he said.
“By exceeding the Widening Access interim target early, our universities continue to demonstrate their progress in admitting students based on their potential, and not just past academic achievement.
“It is also positive to see over a fifth of full-time undergraduate entrants coming from the most deprived areas in Scotland when looking at the college and university sectors combined.
“I also welcome the latest Annual Report from the Commissioner for Fair Access, also published today, which continues to challenge both policymakers and the sector to do more to improve the accessibility of higher education in Scotland, especially given the additional complexity created by COVID-19. I will consider this report and its recommendations carefully.”