Break down the barriers to university

It's about raising aspirations and attainment, and creating second chances for people. Picture: Jane Barlow
It's about raising aspirations and attainment, and creating second chances for people. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Everyone who could potentially benefit from higher education should have the chance to do so, says Alastair Sim

THESE comments made by people of all ages and backgrounds describe the additional support they received from a university to help them go into higher education in Scotland and the difference it made to them: “The best opportunity I have ever been given”; “an ideal stepping stone”; “an amazing experience”; “invaluable in helping me fulfil my dream”.

Some are the first in their family to consider university; others may have been thinking about it as a mature student, having gone straight into a job at 16 and worked for 30 years or more.

There are 19 higher education institutions in Scotland and every one of them is committed to widening access to groups that are currently underrepresented. Each institution runs a range of different programmes and initiatives to help widen access. Many are collaborative, spanning regions of Scotland and working closely with schools or colleges. Some projects are more narrowly focussed on a specific group of potential students, such as care leavers, that could benefit from having particular measures put in place for them.

Such initiatives make all the difference to the individuals that benefit from them but often they aren’t known about any more widely than that. As some groups of students remain underrepresented at university, it’s often assumed that not enough is being done to challenge this. This is far from the case.

Towards the end of last year, Universities Scotland published Access All Areas, a report which brought together over 50 different case studies showing widening access initiatives run in Scotland by our university sector. The initiatives start with support for primary school-age pupils as young as four and five, and their parents, and do not have an upper age limit.

The message that shouts out from the pages of this publication is that no-one is too young or too old to think about going to university and there is a way into university available to everyone with the potential to benefit. The testimonials above are taken from students that participated in such projects and are now realising their ambition of studying at university.

In parallel to developing Access All Areas, last year Universities Scotland set about investigating what is most effective when it comes to widening access. We embarked upon this fully realising that no two people are alike and what works well for one person may not suit the next one. We were – and remain – very wary of the notion that there could be a one-size-fits-all approach. We commissioned a literature review into the evidence base around widening access and have spent a lot of time considering the results. We worked together on this with practitioners in the sector as well as NUS Scotland.

It should go without saying that there are no miracle solutions. If there were, everyone would have been doing it long ago. Widening access remains a challenging issue and solutions have to be holistic, involving all partners that can make a difference: schools, colleges, parents, teachers, communities and universities.

It’s about raising aspirations and attainment. It’s about creating second or third chances for people, as well as encouraging others to believe they are entitled to a first chance at higher education – people who are still raised with the notion that “it’s not for the likes of me”.

Reviewing the evidence of what is effective in widening access has led us to produce a set of 12 recommendations. We believe that acting on these recommendations will contribute to widening access in Scotland.

They cover the whole life cycle: looking to help students get into university, stay in university and then reach successful destinations, whether that is a job or further study after their undergraduate degree. They also address the question of who should be covered by the highly generic term “widening access”, so we are clear who should get to benefit from the projects run by universities and how progress in widening access should best be measured so we can really get a sense whether what we’re doing is working at an individual level and at university level, as well as at a Scotland-wide level.

On the former, we believe that we should be thinking about access for students in the widest terms possible, and certainly more broadly than 17 and 18-year-old school leavers from less wealthy backgrounds. They will remain a priority, of course, but they are not the only people that stand to gain from a Scottish higher education.

It’s easy to start a new year with a newfound sense of optimism, but I believe this new set of recommendations gives us a good new basis on which to keep working on the important, and Scotland-wide, challenge of widening access to higher education.

• Alastair Sim is director at Universities Scotland. Read Access All Areas and the recommendations, Action on Access at


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