What’s happening in Scotland?

Tuesday 13 December 2022, Higher education

by Holly Brown, Policy Adviser, UCAS

What’s happening in Scotland?

Holly Brown, Policy Adviser, UCAS

After two years of educational disruption linked to COVID, the higher education (HE) sector seems to be entering a period of natural reflection. Those across the education sector are asking how we can ensure that individuals accessing education can thrive, and what needs to be changed going forward.

At UCAS, we want to take this opportunity to look at the broader picture in Scotland through our end of cycle data, before covering the key points from our response to the Scottish Government’s National Discussion. Our response to the consultation is very much shaped by the wider context of the significant uplift in student numbers that we are anticipating in the next few years. By the 2026 admissions cycle, we’re projecting that we could see up to one million applicants, around 27% more than in 2021, and twice as many as in 2006. In Scotland specifically, we expect a 10% increase in the number of Scottish applicants.

Below are some insights which we hope will support the Scottish education sector to prepare for the upcoming rise in demand for HE.

Reflections on cycle 2021/22

The 2021/22 cycle saw progress towards a post-COVID normality with Scottish students sitting examinations for the first time in two years. At UCAS, we see around 2/3 of all full-time undergraduate study in Scotland, so what stories did we see develop from our data?

  • Students from the most disadvantaged areas secured more university and college places than ever in 2022. Record numbers of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in Scotland (SIMD quintile 1) have been accepted onto a course, rising from 1,865 in 2021, to 1,950 in 2022 (+4.6%).
  • Acceptances are slightly down on the boom of the pandemic years, against the backdrop of more constrained offer-making for universities and colleges. We have seen 30.1% of Scottish 18-year-olds accepted onto courses (16,970). This is very slightly down on last year’s figure (16,980) but still represents a significant increase from pre-pandemic level of 14,255 in 2019 (26.5%).  Thinking about the uplift in demographic demand that we’ll see over the next few years, the HE sector in Scotland will need to think about what changes should be made to support growing demand.
  • Applications from and acceptances of mature students have declined. We saw the applications from those aged 21 and over in Scotland decline from 34.5% of total applications in 2019, to 30.8% in 2022. This has filtered through to fewer acceptances—only 12,350 mature students were accepted in 2022 (33.1% of total acceptances), compared to 13,375 in 2019.
  • A record number of disabled students applied. 9,085 Scottish students who declared that they had a disability applied to HE in 2022, up 10.3% from last year.
  • Women were 1.5 times as likely as men to make an application in 2022, narrowing the gender gap slightly from 2021 (1.6x) and aligned to the objective set out by the Gender Action plan.

Looking ahead and preparing for the growth in demand for Scottish HE

We welcome the opportunity to respond to the Scottish Government’s National Discussion on Education which is currently collecting feedback from a wide variety of stakeholders about what the future of Scottish education will look like. The National Discussion will inform wide-ranging plans, including the formation of three new education bodies and a review of qualifications and assessment.

We have identified five key areas that we think are crucial to focus on when considering the successes and potential challenges for the Scottish education sector in preparation for the oncoming demographic uplift.

  1. Continuing progress on widening access. In order to retain Scotland’s positive trajectory on widening access, the sector will need to adapt to support students from all backgrounds can access and thrive at university in the increasingly competitive landscape of the next few years. We believe that UCAS has a pivotal role to play here. This year’s cycle has also seen the launch of our seven new questions on the UCAS application which allow applicants to call attention to any additional circumstances which might have impacted on their educational attainment.
  2. Providing equitable information and guidance and access to academic and technical pathways. In the context of the Journey to a Million, we need to make sure that the supply of high-quality opportunities, including apprenticeships, can keep pace with demand. At UCAS, we are committed to developing our services, such as the UCAS Hub, to give students confidence in knowing they are choosing the right route.
  3. Building skills capacity for the future. While the increase in student numbers evidently has some challenges in the short-term, the end prospect of a graduate workforce ready to step in and support wider Scottish society and economy is an exciting prospect. Our report Next Steps: Who are the ‘future nurses? is one example of how we can work with industry partners to produce unique data and insights to build a broader understanding of the needs of the workforce, a view that we could bring to the Scottish context.
  4. Maintaining the benefits of international exchange. We advocate aligning university and college national campaigns, including Scotland is Now, so that Scotland broadens the range of countries from which its international students are recruited.  The research in our report Where Next? What Influences the Choices International Students Make identifies the rationales for different cohorts of students, and we would be eager to work collaboratively with Scottish stakeholders to enhance understanding of global markets and student flows.
  5. Ensuring high quality opportunities are provided across academic and technical routes. We recommend that the Scottish Government, in collaboration with strategic partners, should consider the funding of new academic and vocational provision to main the quality of educational experience for Scottish young people.

As outlined above, the projected up to a million undergraduate applicants in 2026 presents a range of opportunities and risks for the Scottish sector. UCAS looks forward to working with our Scottish stakeholders to ensure that every young person coming through the Scottish education and training sector can fulfil their potential.