How we support widening access and participation through our products and services.

We work in partnership with charities and other sector organisations, to provide practical and inspiring information, advice and resources for under-represented groups, as well as producing reports to inform public debate.

We've produced a range of materials to provide you with information to support widening access and participation.

Barriers and motivations associated with progression to higher education

In July 2016, we published Through the student lens – a report designed to explore perceptions about progression to higher education from the student’s perspective. Over 16,000 recent applicants responded to the survey, about the motivations and influences behind their university choices, and the factors that deterred them — making it our widest ever student survey.

Key findings 
  • The younger that students decide higher education is for them, the more likely they are to go to a ‘higher tariff’ university.
  • Nearly half (49%) thought the entry requirements to these universities were too high – more would have applied if they had known they had a chance of getting in.
  • 41% believed none of these universities offered the courses they were interested in – there was a lack of understanding of career pathways from ‘academic sounding’ degree courses.

Find out more about the survey and the latest insights

Non-A level progression routes

Our work across the sector tells us that alternative progression routes to higher education are much less well understood than the traditional GCSE/A level route.

Our progression pathways project comprises a report (1.19 MB) and suite of materials aimed at students, advisers and providers, to support a better understanding of the advantages and issues related to non-academic progression pathways – including vocational and technical qualifications and apprenticeships. 

Progression pathways resources for you and your students

Alternative pathways through higher education

In June 2017, we published a report on four important routes which offer flexible ways of gaining higher level skills, often by combining study and work. These pathways support widening participation and access, offering an alternative to a three-year, full-time degree. 

Progression Pathways 2017: Pathways through higher education examines foundation years and degrees with foundation years, foundation degrees, Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas, and higher and degree apprenticeships.

The report highlights that universities and colleges cater for an incredibly diverse population of students, but there is a lack of awareness and understanding of the different forms of higher education, and how they differ from traditional undergraduate degrees.

Insight into application trends and behaviours

Every year, UCAS publishes an end of cycle report, which provides data and narrative reports, helping to describe national trends in applicant behaviour across the four countries of the UK.

Contextualised admissions 

Contextual information and data can be used by universities and colleges to assess an applicant’s achievement and potential in light of their educational and socio-economic background. This is called contextualised admissions, and the aim is to form a more complete picture of the characteristics of an individual applicant.

What’s my role in this?

As a teacher or adviser, it’s important to be aware of this practice, so you can give the best advice to your students. Contextualised admissions may encourage aspirational applications to higher education, and can help explain why a student has received a certain offer. It seeks to identify those applicants with the greatest potential to succeed on the course. It is also commonly used to inform support provision at other stages of the application process, and once a student has enrolled.

What practical steps can I take to help?
  • Encourage your students to complete all the relevant application fields in full. The contextual information submitted on the UCAS application is critical to facilitating contextualised admissions.
  • Use the reference to indicate any further contextual information which might warrant special consideration. This could include individual circumstances – e.g. mature student, disability, widening participation activities, or information about your school which may affect performance, such as significant staff changes, or damage to buildings.

We’ve produced this  factsheet (126.89 KB) in conjunction with the Fair Education Alliance (FEA), to explain what contextualised admissions might mean for your students'  applications. 

Self-declared applicant data collected in UCAS Undergraduate Apply 

In addition to standard personal details and qualifications information, UCAS also gives applicants the opportunity to declare additional information — such as an impairment, or experience of the care system. We ask these questions to give contextual information to providers, to identify those applicants who may be eligible for additional support – whatever form that may take – i.e. financial or emotional. 

How it works in practice

The use of contextual information and data in university and college admissions is now widespread, but the way it’s used and the benefits to applicants can vary enormously. To give you an insight into how it’s used and what support is available, we asked four higher education providers how contextualised admissions works in practice

Entry requirements in Scotland

For the 2020 cycle, Scottish universities and colleges are adopting a new approach to setting entry requirements. This is in line with Government policy, and designed to reassure applicants they will be treated fairly.

Students will now see two sets of entry requirements for courses at Scottish universities and colleges: standard and minimum. Both reflect the grades a student needs to achieve by the time they start at the university or college. However, the minimum entry requirements only apply to widening access students. 

Who is a widening access student?

To identify an applicant’s full potential, universities and colleges look beyond grades. This is part of their commitment to address the current under-representation of certain groups within higher education in Scotland.

Each university and college will have its own policy, so it’s important students check their websites to understand whether they will be considered as a widening access student.

Some examples of students who may be eligible include those who:

  • have successfully completed a pre-entry programme
  • live in a target postcode area. For example, in a low participation area as measured by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD)
  • attend a target school or college where attainment is typically below average
  • have experience of being in care
  • are estranged from their family (not supported by their family)
  • have refugee status, or are an asylum seeker
  • are responsible for the unpaid care and wellbeing of a dependant (e.g. a relative, partner, or friend).
  • have parents who serve in the armed forces – or who have done so in the past (service children)
  • are from a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller background
How will a university or college know if someone is a widening access student?

It’s important students complete all the relevant fields in their UCAS application, as this is their opportunity to let their chosen university or college(s) know about their circumstances. Their personal statement can be used to highlight any further contextual information which might warrant special consideration. Individual circumstances, or information about your school which may affect performance, can also be added to the reference.

What does this mean for my students?

If you are advising someone who may be considered a widening access student, encourage them to check the minimum entry requirements in the UCAS search tool. Also remind them to visit universities and colleges’ websites to confirm whether they are considered a widening access student. If they’re still unsure, they should contact the university or college directly.

Universities and colleges may also consider widening access students for additional support (financial or otherwise), either during the application process, or once they have enrolled.


We've developed toolkits with information and advice to help support under-represented groups applying to higher education.

Our work with other organisations

We work with a range of organisations to provide relevant, expert information and advice to different audiences.

Organisations we have worked with to support students with specific individual needs include:

  • Carers Trust, which provides examples of university initiatives for students with caring responsibilities
  • the National Association of Disability Practitioners (NADP), the professional association for disability and inclusivity practitioners in higher and further education. NADP provides codes of practice, peer support, conferences and education events, a legal helpline service, and much more
  • Stand Alone, the charity for estranged people, offers an advice portal specifically for young people entering higher education, and a pledge for universities and colleges to show their commitment to supporting these students

  • Become, the charity for young care leavers in England, which provides information about the support available in higher education to care leavers via their Propel website

  • Service Children’s Progression Alliance (SCiP), a partnership of organisations focused on improving outcomes for children from military families, including supporting progression to higher education. We have worked together to create a guide for students writing their personal statement, and for advisers supporting them through the application process
  • MASIS (the Mobility And Support Information Service), a charity which provides advice about access and inclusivity for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions

  • The Russell Group, which has developed Advancing Access to provide a variety of free CPD resources and online events for teachers and advisers to help them support students' progression to HE

  • Service Children’s Progression Alliance (SCiP), a partnership of organisations focused on improving outcomes for children from military families, including supporting progression to higher education
  • The National Union of Students (NUS) is the national voice of students, providing information and advice on all aspects of student life
  • Student Action for Refugees (STAR) is a national network of student groups working to improve the lives of refugees in the UK. They offer a list of scholarships available to asylum seekers and refugees who want to go to university
  • Refugee Education UK offers support services to help refugees and asylum seekers overcome any challenges in going to university, and offers useful resources.

UCAS regularly engages with the Office for Students (OfS), which is responsible for regulating fair access and participation in England. Their good practice advice on the preparation of access and participation plans for 2019/20 includes updated information about target groups, including estranged students, care leavers, carers, disabled students, mature students, refugees, children from military families, and students from different ethnic groups.


UCAS is a member of the Fair Education Alliance – a coalition of organisations from across education, charities, and business. Together, the FEA is working to tackle educational inequality, building a fairer education for all by 2022.

Our work with the FEA

  • UCAS works in partnership with charities and other sector organisations to provide advice and resources for under-represented groups, and to support students’ individual needs. As part of this work, UCAS has also produced this factsheet (126.89 KB) in conjunction with the FEA to explain to teachers and advisers what contextualised admissions might mean for student applications.
  • UCAS has also worked with the FEA to produce its report 'Putting fairness in context: using data to widen access to higher education’. The report researches how contextual data is used, and makes recommendations on how to ensure providers have access to, and use, contextual data in ways to make access to higher education in the UK fairer. 
  • UCAS has published a blog for the FEA to introduce our STROBE service, which supports the evaluation of widening access and participation activities by taking the personal data that has been supplied, and matching it to the UCAS database to trace the progress of the individual.
  • The FEA has released a collection of essays entitled Building a World Leading Education System that is Fair to which UCAS' former CEO, Mary Curnock Cook, contributed a piece entitled 'Securing equity and access to higher education – What more needs to be done?'.

UCAS also works with organisations to facilitate the evaluation of the impact of their widening access and participation activities. The Brilliant Club has produced an example (578.41 KB) of how they made use of our STROBE service to measure impact for students and stakeholders.

If you have any suggestions or feedback on our resources, please email Carys Fisher, Senior Policy Executive, at