What does the Journey to a Million means for widening access in Scotland?

Alison Train, Assistant Director, Lothians Equal Access Programme for Schools (LEAPS) examines what the Journey to a Million means for widening access in Scotland?

When I have a young person sitting across from me, looking for advice on their UCAS application, feeling a mixture of excitement and nerves, it never dawns on me to wonder what number of applicant they are. What matters, in that conversation, is that I help them navigate the different factors that go into making their choices. To think that I might be the adviser that helps the millionth UCAS applicant by the end of this decade is mind blowing. I wonder if balloons would suddenly fall from the ceiling of the interview room. 

As an adviser reflecting on the Journey to a Million, what matters most to me is that there is still space to see each applicant as an individual regardless of how big the applicant pool becomes.

I have worked in widening access and participation for 18 years in Scotland. Prior to that I worked in student recruitment in a university and as a careers office assistant in the east end of Glasgow. Witnessing the lack of easy access to opportunities and realising the effort and determination it can take for some to reach their goals, is something that has had a profound impact on my working life. These experiences have shaped my views on higher education (HE); I consider it to be a positive, life changing and valuable destination. I believe that it needs to be freely open and available to any who wish to consider it, regardless of their background circumstances. If UCAS’s prediction that there will be 17% more Scottish 18-year-old applicants by the end of the decade plays out, then my main concern is how we protect space for those who don’t fall into standard entry requirements boxes.

Increased competition in the Scottish context

As indicated by the reflections in this collection, without sector wide action there is the potential that increased competition will have the greatest impact on disadvantaged students. 

In Scotland we already have sector wide action in the form of contextualised admissions policies which every institution has committed to. The Scottish system of contextual admissions has Government backing and grew from the 2014-15 Programme for Government. Nicola Sturgeon, the former First Minister, declared an ambition that every child, irrespective of socioeconomic background, should have an equal chance of accessing higher education. A Commission on Widening Access was established and it produced its first publication, “A Blueprint for Fairness” in 2016.  One of the recommendations was that universities, who were mostly already employing some form of contextualised admissions individually, should adopt a more robust and standardised system: “By 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. These access thresholds should be separate to standard entrance requirements and set as ambitiously as possible…”i  

Access thresholds have now been adopted across the HE sector in Scotland. However, there are still some differences. SIMD 20 (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation quintiles 10 and 20) and care experience are universally used as criteria for contextual offers. Thereafter it can depend on the institution with some applying broader brush strokes than others. The landscape can be tough to navigate for applicants but there are many positives to the current system and the good news is that every institution in Scotland is doing it in some way.

On the ground

The partnership I work for engages with 73 high schools in South East Scotland and over 2500 higher education applicants every year. One of our bigger jobs is providing information, advice and guidance to these applicants. This largely means helping them sort through contextual admissions policies to help them find their way into their chosen courses. Our students are:

  • first in family to go to university
  • from low-income backgrounds
  • young carers
  • care experienced
  • estranged from their families and living independently 
  • from SIMD 20 postcodes
  • attending a priority school which has low progression to higher education

Our role often starts with aspiration raising, sometimes as far down the school as S3. Within each year’s cohort, we see many who have achieved brilliantly and would have no need of a contextual offer going by their grades alone. However other factors in their lives mean that they are often not considering higher education as a destination. We see other students who have the desire to apply to university and who may not have achieved as high grades on paper, but who have overcome huge barriers to achieve the grades they have. Their results show the potential they have to succeed. This is the key point of contextualised admissions; that someone who achieves BBBBB’s in Scottish Highers whilst caring for a disabled parent is as worthy of a place at university as someone who achieves AAAAA’s with no barriers to their learning. It’s about potential and the playing field absolutely should be levelled. Students who have grown up going through the care system and have still achieved a good set of exam passes deserve to be looked at as much as those who have not had to face those issues. If blunt exam results is all admissions teams consider, then universities would be only for those who had the luck of being born into privilege.

I could tell many tales of applicants that have stuck in my memory. On the LEAPS stand at a UCAS event I met a student who had five “A” passes at Higher. She asked me if she was allowed to apply to university because no one in her family ever had before. This still shocks me and I remind myself of it each time I sit down with a student. Recently I spoke to a student who had lived with a parent with addiction problems and the student had to work to support their family. They then became a carer as the health of the parent sadly deteriorated. However, showing amazing tenacity, they achieved five B passes in Higher.

Everyone in my team has similar stories to tell of brilliant achievement in the face of inordinate barriers. Contextual admissions hold these barriers down and allow students to walk over them and onto the future they want to have.

There is, however, a sting in the tail. In Scotland, the Government has committed to funding university places for Scottish domiciled students who choose to stay in Scotland to study and this policy is regularly reiterated as being a priority. On the face of it, this is an excellent commitment and does help many people to consider higher education without the burden of a high level of student debt looming in their futures. What it does, however, is cap the number of places available at Scottish universities for Scottish domiciled students. So, if a university is committed to giving a number of places to students with contextual factors, but they also have a limited amount of places available in the first place, something clearly has to give. And what worries me, on this Journey to A Million, is will the strategy of contextual admissions be maintained or will it be compromised? If contextual admissions holds barriers down, as places become even scarcer and pressure builds on universities, will these barriers slowly spring back up? Time will tell but I sincerely hope not.

Streamlining the sector’s approach to determining characteristics

How could the sector in Scotland respond to the challenge of increased applicants if it wants to protect widening participation (WP) students? This is tough to answer as so much depends on Scottish government policy on both funding for higher education applicants and for widening access targets. Generally, I’d like to see the determining characteristics used by universities being streamlined in order to make sure vital contextual offers reach the right students in a more competitive market. There are some categories of student who don’t universally receive contextual offers, for example students who are living independently as estranged from their families or young carers. In order to balance things, and perhaps controversially, I’d remove the targets that are based around postcode only.

In my opinion using postcode analysis, whilst in some ways useful, can be too blunt a measure to use for contextual offers. Interestingly, the final report from the outgoing Commissioner for Widening Access discussed his concerns around the use of postcode only in contextual offers.ii On the ground, students I meet who are eligible for a contextual offer based only on their postcode often don’t see this as something relevant to them and their application. There are also issues surrounding postcode analysis and rurality. Rural areas often don’t fall into the lowest SIMD quintiles and yet students who live in rural areas can have difficulty accessing extracurricular activities and other opportunities. The principal of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen recently published an opinion piece which highlighted this anomaly from an institutional perspective so it’s clear that discussions are happening around this theme.iii  

Were it up to me, I’d move away from a measure like postcode which treats whole groups of applicants with very different personal circumstances as a homogenous group, and I’d adjust contextual offer targets to focus on circumstances which directly affect the individual. I’d also make sure that these are fully utilised in all institutions. This may mean a fall in the number of contextual offers given, but that they are targeted more efficiently to those who need them most — and perhaps that it what is most important in the face of increased applications.   

iScottish Government (2016), A Blueprint for Fairness: Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access.

iiScottish Government, (2022) Maintaining the Momentum Towards Fair Access: Annual Report.

iiiHardie, W. et al. (2022), What progress has Scotland seen on widening participation?.

Alison Train

Assistant Director, Lothians Equal Access Programme for Schools (LEAPS)

Alison Train is an Assistant Director for LEAPS; a large widening participation programme in the South East of Scotland which is part of the Scottish Funding Councils “National Schools Programme”. Alison currently sits on the UCAS Council and the UCAS Scottish Policy Group.  She is a trained careers adviser believes that IAG should be at the heart of widening access and participation. Prior to working at LEAPS, Alison worked in student recruitment at Queen Margaret University and for Skills Development Scotland in the East end of Glasgow.  

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