Will higher education hit the mark?

11th January 2013 at 00:00
New deals between the government and universities have for the first time linked funding to targets for widening access to students from deprived backgrounds. But are they tough enough to make a real difference?

The academic year had begun in September, but it was not until last month that, after months of negotiations, the first ever university outcome agreements finally appeared on the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) website.

The agreements are highly significant because, for the first time, they create a link between the funding universities receive from the government and the targets for admissions, retention and performance they are expected to meet.

The outcome agreements had been finalised before the start of the first term. But for reasons that remain unclear, the detail was kept under wraps for months.

The agreements can be seen as a form of quid pro quo. In return for giving the universities a generous funding settlement, the government sees them as a means of ensuring its priorities are given the appropriate level of attention.

While the agreements that eventually emerged are as diverse in nature as the country's HE institutions, the priorities for the current year are to get more of Scotland's poorest students into university, improve collaboration between HE and industry, exploit university research more effectively and provide a more coherent pattern of provision.

Universities were also asked to deliver a more efficient "learner journey" - in other words, eliminate some of the current overlaps between school and university and FE courses and university degrees - improve the international competitiveness of research; and put equality and diversity high up their agenda.

The education sector as a whole expects HE institutions to make significant headway on widening access. But in this first round of agreements, there is an acceptance that targets have been modest as universities had already been given their funding for set student numbers before negotiations started on their outcome agreements, leaving them little room for manoeuvre.

On the political front, education secretary Michael Russell has been putting pressure on institutions to do more on widening access, following damning reports showing that only a very small number of students at Scottish universities came from Scotland's most deprived neighbourhoods.

"We know universities can't do it all when it comes to fair access, but they can do much more," Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said.

According to NUS Scotland's Unlocking Scotland's Potential report, published last summer, only 11.6 per cent of students in 2010-11 came from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds (SIMD20), and among young students they made up an even smaller proportion - only 8.6 per cent of the cohort.

At the ancient universities, the picture was even bleaker. The same set of statistics showed that only 2.7 per cent of entrants to the University of St Andrews came from the poorest 20 per cent of Scottish neighbourhoods in 2010-11, while 3.1 per cent of Aberdeen's and 5 per cent of Edinburgh's new full-time undergraduate cohort came from a SIMD20 background.

Despite criticism over the years, the sector has failed to get to grips with this problem. In the five years between 2005-06 and 2010-11, the proportion of entrants from the 20 per cent of poorest backgrounds has increased by only 1 per cent - from 10.6 to 11.6 per cent. And among those entrants aged 21 and under, the increase was an almost negligible 0.4 per cent, from 8.2 to 8.6 per cent.

"There is scope within the settlement to expand the number of students that you fund. I want to see that growth targeted at widening access, in increasing the ability of those universities with the highest demand to take more students from the most deprived areas in Scotland at this time of high demand," Mr Russell told universities in a letter of guidance to the SFC last October.

The current outcome agreements were already in force by the time he made this statement. But their subsequent publication provided evidence that all the universities had indeed agreed to take action on widening access, albeit to a greater or lesser extent.

Edinburgh Napier University, for example, promised to increase SIMD20 participation from 11.7 per cent in 2010-11 to 12.6 per cent, while Glasgow Caledonian University said one in five of its entrants would come from the poorest 20 per cent of Scotland.

Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen vowed to almost double the rate of entrants from deprived backgrounds by 2013-14, from 5 per cent to 9 per cent, while Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh committed itself to a 4 per cent increase in SIMD20 undergraduate entrants within two years.

The University of Abertay pledged to recruit 20 per cent of its Scottish intake from SIMD20, while the University of Edinburgh committed itself to a 50 per cent increase by 2016.

The most criticised of all Scottish universities for its apparent elitism, the University of St Andrews, agreed to deliver a rise of 45 per cent in the number of entrants from the poorest backgrounds in Scotland by 2014- 15.

But the 45 per cent rise was from a very low starting point, and once it became known that this translated into only 19 students, criticism began to mount, leading the university's vice-principal with responsibility for admissions, Stephen Magee, to say the university was being "demonised".

Unlike a number of other institutions, including Dundee, Queen Margaret and Glasgow Caledonian universities, St Andrews has chosen not to move towards "contextualised admission" - a system that allows students from less well-off backgrounds to gain entry with lower qualifications.

"We know that we could play the political game and change these figures overnight by lowering our entry grades, but experience tells us we would simply be admitting these kids to fail, and that would be utterly dishonest," said Mr Magee.

Like others in the sector, the University of St Andrews has pledged to increase its bursary provision, in its case by pound;400,000 this year.

Financial pressures are, according to NUS Scotland, one of the main reasons for students choosing to drop out of university. Its figures show the drop-out rate at Scottish universities to be higher than in the rest of the UK, at 9.4 per cent, compared with a UK average of 8.6 per cent.

In addition, the average retention rates for the 20 per cent most deprived students are 7.2 per cent lower than for students overall.

Other universities have prioritised efforts to keep students in courses, especially those from the poorest backgrounds. Robert Gordon University, for example, has promised to improve retention among SIMD20 by 5 per cent in two years, while the Glasgow School of Art will aim to "maintain retention rates of SIMD40 students above 90 per cent".

Student attainment at school and a lack of aspiration to go to university, along with the elitist reputation of some institutions, are known to be factors preventing students from non-traditional backgrounds from entering, or even applying for, higher education.

Many universities have therefore set up various initiatives which involve cooperation with schools and colleges, and have promised in their outcome agreements to build and expand on these.

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is planning to engage with as many as 4,000 pupils per year through its widening access programme, while the University of Aberdeen has said it will coordinate activities with the schools in Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire that have the lowest rate of progression to higher education.

The University of Glasgow will focus efforts on increasing SIMD20 admissions to courses such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, law, initial teacher education, accounting and engineering. Schemes like the Reach Scotland programme, set up by Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Aberdeen and Dundee universities to encourage and support entrance into these professions, are designed to support these efforts (see panel, left).

Colleges have been identified as another crucial partner, and increasing the rate of college to university articulation, straight into second or third year of a degree, is a priority for some institutions, especially those which already have close links with their local FE colleges. This includes the University of Abertay, which plans to raise the proportion of students entering with advanced standing from college to 15 per cent.

This is not without difficulty, however, and links will take time to establish where they do not already exist. Curricula will have to be better aligned, new courses developed and information shared to ensure a smooth learner journey.

To encourage this sort of cooperation, the government has already announced additional funding for more than 1,000 guaranteed articulation places.

However, this approach does not command universal support. The University of Glasgow, for example, has made no firm commitments to increasing articulation places, stressing that "in terms of general progression from HN studies, experience has shown that current HN qualifications predominantly do not prepare students sufficiently for advanced entry to the University of Glasgow".

Universities have been criticised for the lack of consistency in their agreements, but they say this is necessary in such a diverse sector.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said the outcome agreements had to reflect universities' individual missions and strategies and that this was in keeping with a system where universities were autonomous.

"The targets also reflect institutions' different starting points and the contexts in which they operate, as well as progress already made, which means no two outcomes can be exactly the same," he said.

Targets to admit more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the first round of agreements had been dictated by the fixed number of places to which universities could recruit, he added.

"If they appear modest in scale, it is important to remember that in the absence of additional places, it would have been very difficult to admit a significantly different profile of student without some displacement of other qualified learners," he said.

It is also unclear at this point what sanctions, if any, universities might incur if they fail to meet their targets. Michael Russell told the Scottish Parliament's education committee in October that the "approach will be incentivisation - carrots and sticks".

To support progress next year, the education secretary has already announced extra funding for around 700 university places on widening access schemes for 2013-14, in addition to the normal places funded through the SFC's main grant.

It is hoped that negotiations for the next round of outcome agreements - currently ongoing - will go more smoothly than the first.

"It is no secret that the process behind the first round of outcome agreements was far from perfect," said Mr Sim.

"Delays in getting started and the lack of clarity provided by the funding council on the rules of the game were particularly frustrating for universities. However, the SFC has been open to learning lessons for the second round and we are hopeful that both sides will conclude the second exercise feeling that it has been more productive, more consistent and less bureaucratic."

Mark Batho, chief executive of the SFC, added: "The current 2012-13 outcome agreements were the first ones and a new process for everyone involved. We are already working with institutions on the 2013-14 agreements, which will be more specific documents. We are currently in dialogue with universities to agree ways to monitor and evaluate the agreements in the future."


pound;1.02bn - The Scottish Funding Council's funding for universities 2012- 13.

11.6% - The proportion of Scottish students entering university in 2010-11 who came from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds (SIMD20).

50% - The rise in the number of SIMD20 entrants to which the University of Edinburgh is committed to delivering by 2016, ie, about 50 students more.

4,000 - The number of pupils with which the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland plans to engage annually through its widening access programme.

22.3% - The proportion of all entrants to medicine in 2012 at the University of Glasgow who are from the 40 per cent most deprived backgrounds.

9.7% - Equivalent proportion for the above for 2011.


Engaging young people early and creating the ambition to go to university has been identified in the outcome agreements as a vital part of widening access.

The national project Reach Scotland, run by St Andrews, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow universities, aims to raise awareness of degrees such as medicine and law and encourage, support and prepare pupils from S4 onwards to aspire to those professions.

The University of Glasgow is in charge of coordinating the programme in the west of Scotland, working with 92 schools.

Pupils are introduced to the medicine, veterinary medicine, law, surgery and dentistry faculties in S4 and learn about entry requirements before visiting the university campus and attending practical workshops and demonstrations showcasing the subjects, accessing the university's virtual learning system, and meeting students and staff.

In S5, pupils take part in a week-long summer school, including lectures, seminars and workshops in their chosen subject, as well as coaching sessions with current undergraduate students and staff on Ucas applications, personal statements, and interview preparation.

The S6 programme includes an interview skills workshop, which leads to pupils being awarded a profile that will be sent to admissions officers in the institution to which they are applying.

Dr Neil Croll, head of widening participation, said: "We've never doubted that pupils with the ability to do well existed in these areas; we aim to inform them they can and do have the right to progress to HE and can do well there - and in these very high tariff and hard-to-access professions."

In 2012, the first full year of Reach, the university surpassed its SIMD40 targets for medicine (22.3 per cent, compared with 9.7 per cent in 2011) and veterinary medicine, and progress has been made in the other subjects.

One of those who benefited from the programme is 18-year-old Amy Brown (pictured), a former pupil of Grange Academy, Kilmarnock.

"I was already considering veterinary medicine but was not sure if I was able to achieve the academic conditions. None of my family have been to university, so I did not have someone that could help me with the process," she said.

"I found the day when Reach professionals from Glasgow University came into the school and helped us with our personal statements was useful. They gave us many tips and even asked us to email them our personal statements so they could take time and give us advice on how to improve them."


It is 12 years since Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, turned the political spotlight on to widening access when he accused the University of Oxford of elitism after it rejected straight-A state-school pupil Laura Spence (pictured). The intervening years have seen the launch of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), as well as many other initiatives by universities in England to attract students from a variety of backgrounds.

OFFA was set up in England under the Higher Education Act 2004 to make sure the introduction of higher tuition fees in 2006-07 did not deter people from entering higher education for financial reasons. Universities and colleges were explicitly committed to increasing participation in higher education among under-represented groups.

It approves and monitors access agreements, which set out a university's or college's tuition fee limit and their access commitments. The agreements are a requirement for all institutions planning to charge tuition fees above the basic level.

OFFA monitors institutions annually, and in the case of a failure to meet a target can direct the Higher Education Funding Council for England or the Teaching Agency to deduct a fine from the institution's grant or suspend part of it. It can also refuse to renew the access agreement, preventing the institution from charging fees above the standard level.

Despite this, the introduction of even higher tuition fees of up to pound;9,000 per year in 2010 has still impacted on the number of young people entering university in England, particularly those from deprived backgrounds.

Application statistics published by Ucas last week revealed a 6.5 per cent drop in the number of university applicants from England by December 2012, compared with the previous year, which had also seen a significant fall compared with December 2010. It is expected that application figures will rise significantly before the final deadline later this month, but last year overall applications to university were down by 6.6 per cent following the increase in tuition fees.

Professor Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said entry rates for 18-year-olds from advantaged areas remained three to four times higher than for those in disadvantaged areas, and that the most advantaged young people were still six to nine times more likely than the most disadvantaged to go to one of the universities with the highest entry requirements.

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