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Scottish and English records on access should be compared

The access record of universities in Scotland has been disappointing, and the Scottish Government needs to stop sidelining the problem. Lucy Hunter Blackburn argues that despite that the comparison with England holds up, despite what the politicians are saying.
This article is more than 7 years old

Lucy Hunter Blackburn is a Contributing Editor at Wonkhe and currently an ESRC-funded postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, and former Head of Higher Education in the Scottish Government.

Can higher education in Scotland and England be compared? The difference in the countries’ approaches to fee policy is familiar, but what about how well each system does in addressing socio-economic inequality?

Last month I co-authored a report for the Sutton Trust, which considered Scotland’s record in widening access to higher education in a UK context. Some of our comparisons attracted surprisingly little comment. An analysis of HESA’s UK-wide widening participation benchmarks showed that Scottish universities are much more likely to have a combination of entry requirements and subject mix, meaning that HESA lowers its expectation of how many students they will be able to recruit from less advantaged backgrounds. That’s a substantial finding for Scottish policy makers.

There was also no questioning of the finding that the social segregation of universities in both England and Scotland has altered little over the past two decades. Between 2004 and 2014 the proportion of students from professional/managerial backgrounds in different types of university saw no real change in either nation. Over the same period, differences between the proportion of students from independent schools at the most and least selective universities widened in Scotland, and narrowed (just a little) in England. 

See no evil, hear no evil

The controversy over our report came from comparing participation levels in England and Scotland by background. Using UCAS data, we highlighted that Scottish 18 year olds from the most deprived areas were four times less likely to go directly to university than those from the least disadvantaged areas, compared to a figure of 2.4 for England. This appears to have caused particular discomfort. A Scottish government spokesperson described UCAS data as “not comparable” between England and Scotland. Universities Scotland said, “we understand the temptation to compare Scotland and England on access, as with all things, however it is not always meaningful or helpful because our systems of education at school, college and university level are now so different.” That statement merits a small dissertation by itself. But the message was clear.

It was pointed out that the UCAS figures exclude the substantial amount of mostly Higher National-level provision in Scottish further education colleges. Yet our report did point out that almost two-fifths of all initial recruitment into HE in Scotland by the age of 30 is into FE colleges. It is college-based participation which gives Scotland a higher overall HE initial participation rate: 55%, compared to England’s 46.6%. We calculated that since 2006 90% of all the growth in new entrants to HE up to age 30 from the most deprived 20% of communities in Scotland had been via entry to HE courses at FE colleges.

Many of these entrants will eventually move into university, although frustratingly we could not find a published figure for the percentage of each year’s entrants who had done so; we estimated it might be around 40%. However, we also drew attention to the large proportion – around half – whose move to university will involve only “partial credit” for their period in college, requiring one or more repeat years, during which they will have to rely largely or entirely on loans for state support. Some face a six-year journey to achieving honours. Much more attention needs to be paid to the comparability of entry through college, both as an end in itself and a route to further study. In our view, relying heavily on the indirect route to university through college for the most disadvantaged risks embedding further inequalities.

It was a surprise therefore to find a Scottish government spokesperson arguing that “the report suggests that the overall participation rate for higher education is lower in Scotland than in England” and “fails to take account of the significantly different context in Scotland whereby a significant proportion of higher education takes places in colleges”. In case that left any doubt, the government added that “some of the report’s findings are based on misconceptions that do not accurately reflect the position as regards widening access in Scotland.” John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, expanded on this on the Today Programme, wrongly claiming that “the report doesn’t take into account the very significant number of young people that articulate through college to enter the university environment.”

In the Scottish Parliament just this week, the Minister for Further and Higher Education echoed this, noting that “colleges also play an important role in delivering higher education, and that was not included within the Sutton Trust report”. That said, Nicola Sturgeon has conceded that there is “work to do”.

Comparing data and comparing pathways

The desire to play down our conclusions on entry patterns was clearly strong, and there are several responses we might offer.

First, for all its limitations, UCAS remains a good source of information about direct entry from school into institutions specialising in study to degree level, which we believe to be a relatively advantageous route into higher education. The number of UCAS entrants to non-university or university college providers remains relatively small. UCAS is also our only source of data on applications, and therefore on success rates. Much of its data is available with some degree of breakdown by social background. To dismiss UCAS as a source is to turn our backs on a lot of interesting material. To take one example, using UCAS data we were able to show that the acceptance rate for Scottish applicants had fallen across all backgrounds in recent years, and is more determined by background, than is the case in England or Wales. Northern Ireland resembles Scotland here.

Second, it is true that later transfers from college are likely to narrow the gap in entry rates to university-level higher education between the most and least disadvantaged. But by how much remains to be demonstrated properly, and even when that is done, the questions won’t disappear about the additional costs that some incur through this route. Even the Scottish government seems to be wary of comparing HN-level college entry to undertaking a university degree, and charged its own Commission on Widening Access with considering how to specifically widen access to university.

Third, there is indeed scope for questioning the relevance of UCAS’ deprivation measure – POLAR3 – for Scotland. However, UCAS now use the Scottish Index for Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) metric. It turns out that POLAR3 produces remarkably similar figures to SIMD for participation rates and trends over time. If anything, things tend to look a bit worse using the SIMD figures. We noted this in the report. The “four times less likely” figure is reflected in the SIMD figures as well as the POLAR3 data. This potentially large problem in theory turns out to have limited impact in practice.

Strikingly, the Scottish government, despite its own arguments, is not immune from drawing on UCAS figures. Faced with evidence of a large fall (-7.5%) in one year in UCAS entrants aged 18 from the most deprived areas, ministers reached for another, better-looking UCAS number in response, rather than producing supplementary information on college-level entry. There are plenty more examples the Scottish government and universities selectively using UCAS data to celebrate the sector’s achievements.

Free tuition and access – a red herring?

It is thus possible to make Scottish and English comparisons using data from several sources, including UCAS. A coherent picture emerged in our own study. The demand for Scottish university places had risen at a similar rate as in England, but the competition for these places was greater, the entry requirements higher, the availability of lower tariff options far more limited, and the success rates of applicants lower and more linked to their background. All these things are consistent with the decision in Scotland not to expand student numbers as much as in England. The focus has been instead on fully funding the costs of tuition. There is no evidence that this has enabled Scotland to perform particularly well at widening access.

Our analysis clearly poses some questions for an administration which, for a long time, has positioned free tuition as the rock upon which fairer access will be built. Some immediate pushback should be no surprise. But insisting too much on Scotland’s incomparability will only make it harder to understand the challenges the country now faces in seeking to achieve fairer access to its universities.

4 responses to “Scottish and English records on access should be compared

  1. How do the cuts of 140,000 part time students at college play into this. ( mainly affecting women mature and disabled)

  2. I’ve not worked on that data – I know SFC did some analysis which showed circa a quarter of lost enrolments were school age kids on very short progs (esp drink awareness, sometimes bussed out to schools). But that still leaves a definite drop in more substantial engagement with others. The refocussing of existing resources on younger students , esp f/t, esp in HE, (which is driving this fall as much as squeezed reource) does appear to be absorbing rising demand for HE more cheaply than expanding univ places.

  3. Agree but seems ‘not a good thing’ that women( possibly with family commitments) and employed mature ( all genders) seeking to skill or up-skill but part time are being excluded doubly so with Brexit

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