The Commission for Widening Access, set up by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2014, has released a report setting out a series of targets for Scottish universities.
Among the 34 recommendations that the report establishes, it aims to ensure that 20 per cent of pupils from Scotland’s most deprived areas make up 20 per cent of higher education entrants by the year 2030.
The report suggests the means to achieve this would be lower admissions thresholds for students from the most underprivileged backgrounds, in comparison with higher thresholds for some of the country’s wealthiest areas.
The report specifically commends the University of Glasgow’s Top- Up programme and St Andrews’ Gateway to Physics initiative.
It states that, “by delivering targeted academic and pastoral support in the initial stages of study, neither university has experienced any detrimental impact on academic standards. We therefore see no strong reason why similar, or even more progressive approaches cannot be mainstreamed right across the sector.”
Mike Johnson, Director of Access and Scottish/EU Admissions at StAndrews is listed as a consultant by the report.
A University spokesman asserted, “The University is committed to widening access and breaking down barriers to academic achievement. We are currently taking time to read in depth and reflect on the Commission’s report.”
The targets outlined in the report are national targets. Meaning that quotas will not be imposed on individual universities.
Research conducted at St Andrews found that students from a more challenging school context are more likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than those with identical grades from a school performing above the national average.
St Andrews offers a number of ‘Gateway Courses,’ which allow students from low income backgrounds to study subjects that they may not have otherwise been able to. The Gateway courses in physics and astronomy at St Andrews has been used as a case study by The Commission for Widening Access has used it as a case study in November 2015.
Studying physics and astronomy has become so popular at the University that the standard asking grades are now four ‘A’ grade Scottish Highers to maintain the student numbers to the permitted level.
However, students from the widening participation background can join the course with a modified entry year and the asking grades of four Highers at ‘B’ grade.
Pat Mathewson, President of the Students’ Association, said “There is always more to be done in ensuring universities serve as engines of social mobility, and St Andrews has a forward looking view in meeting this essential objective.
“Both in practice and research, St Andrews has demonstrated leadership in widening participation.
“For example, even prior to this report, St Andrews already employed a strategy of lowered thresholds for access students in some instances.
“And the University’s outreach programs take a dedicated long-view in attracting students from diverse backgrounds.
“Furthermore, our academic strength has delivered cutting edge research on barriers currently under- appreciated throughout the sector, such as the challenges posed to students from ARC (Access Rural Areas) schools.”
In regards to the report, Mr Mathewson asserted that, “while we welcome the Scottish Government’s view towards expanding opportunity for higher education, it must not be limited to point of entry.
“Depravation is many years in the making prior to application to university, and additional resources and support is necessary to not only ensure access students arrive at University, but that they thrive thereafter.”
The Commission for Widening Access is chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, she claims that “the social, cultural and financial benefits of higher education can be transmitted between generations, breaking cycles of deprivation and contributing to a fairer, more prosperous and inclusive Scotland.”