A record number of students from disadvantaged areas are getting into Scottish universities, an annual report has shown.
The Commissioner for Fair Access said the increase in deprived students entering universities has not come at the expense of students from more affluent areas.
Professor John McKendrick said the record number of entrants from Scotland’s poorest areas was achieved in 2021-2022, with a total of 5,595 students.
Students from Scotland’s least deprived areas make up the largest cohort – with Prof McKendrick noting the number from those areas in Scottish universities has risen by 8.4% since the 2013-2014 academic year.
About 16.5% of entrants to higher education are from Scotland’s most deprived 20% of areas, with universities striving to boost that number to 20% by 2030.
Prof McKendrick, who is based at Glasgow Caledonian University, was appointed Scotland’s Commissioner for Fair Access in January 2023, taking over from Sir Peter Scott.
The independent advisory role is designed to hold ministers and the Scottish Funding Council to account as they work towards fair access targets.
Prof McKendrick said: “Scotland continues to make progress in promoting fair access to higher education, although there are signs that the rate of progress is slowing down.
“The whole point of this work is not to widen access per se, but rather to achieve social justice.
“That is, to ensure that those with ability from most disadvantaged backgrounds are not excluded from higher education on account of the ways in which access was traditionally administered.”
In what is Prof McKendrick’s first paper, he made 20 recommendations, with 10 priorities for his work in the coming year.
These recommendations include: replacing redundant individual institutional targets with a fair access pledge that implores each Higher Education Institution to make progress; for the Scottish Government to consider strengthening the remit of the commissioner to assume responsibility for advising on fair access to the whole of tertiary education; and to widen the scope of fair access to include graduate apprenticeships, part-time undergraduate study, and postgraduate study.
Among his priorities for 2024 are commitments to: examine how inefficiencies in the Scottish Credit Qualification Framework can be tackled; examine what can be undertaken to improve retention rates among students from disadvantaged areas; and engage with a broader range of stakeholders to promote shared responsibility for achieving fair access in Scotland.
Prof McKendrick wrote: “A sense of collective purpose has developed. Each of Scotland’s higher education institutions has made some progress in promoting fair access, but there is scope to achieve more.
“We should also recognise that the challenges that are faced by many of those who want to access higher education from our most disadvantaged areas – child cost-of-living pressures, family poverty and the poverty-related attainment gap in schools persist at unacceptably high levels, despite the good intentions to work toward reduction, if not eradication.
“Achieving fair access targets is predicated, at least in part, on progress in reducing pressures on family budgets, tackling child poverty and enabling improving the qualifications at SCQF Level 6 of adults and children and adults experiencing poverty to achieve and evidence their potential through school and further education.”
Minister for higher and further education, Graeme Dey, said: “Clear progress has been made in recent years towards achieving the target of ensuring that, by 2030, we have 20% of students entering higher education from Scotland’s most deprived backgrounds.
“As the commissioner notes, the proportion of students accessing higher education has increased by 45.3% since 2013-14, and I am grateful for the work done by our higher education institutions so far to help us reach this point.
“The commissioner’s report also provides further confirmation that the welcome growth in students from disadvantaged areas has not been at the expense of other Scottish students, with increases in home students attending university across the board.
“The Scottish Government will redouble our efforts, in conjunction and partnership with higher education institutions, as we work towards the next interim target of 18% by 2026, then achieving the 2030 target.
“Ensuring fair access to university is central to our vision of a fairer, more equal Scotland – and this Government’s commitment to free tuition and our enhanced student support offering makes certain that access to university will remain based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay, ensuring that the opportunity of a university education is not denied to anyone, regardless of their background.”