SCOTLAND is continuing to “set the pace” when it comes to students from deprived areas getting into university, the Commissioner for Fair Access has said.

Commissioner Peter Scott's latest annual report said the Scottish Government’s approach has been an “unambiguous success” and that “all the fair access indicators are flashing green”. 

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said this means Scotland is now leading the UK.

A record 16.7% of students from Scotland’s most deprived 20% of communities were entrants on full-time first-year degree courses in 2020/21, an increase of 545 students compared with the previous year.

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This represents an increase of around 1550 entrants (39%), during Scott's time as commissioner.

Scott also said that future Scottish Government targets of increasing the number of students from deprived backgrounds getting into university “may not be easy to meet”.

The Scottish Government seeks to increase the rate of deprived students accessing higher education to 18% by 2026 and 20% by 2030.

But the coronavirus pandemic could present real challenges to these targets as the scale of education disruptions have yet to come to be fully realised.

The report said Scotland’s interim target of 16% has been “comfortably exceeded” as more entrants from the poorest communities go to university than ever before.

Pupils in early to middle levels of education are likely to be the most impacted by the pandemic as pupils were met with several bouts of disrupted schooling – including closures and isolation – digital poverty and financial hardship.

The current report assesses university entrants in 2020/21, whom the commissioner said were already on the path to higher education entry.

While the commissioner said it is “likely” that the future targets will be met, both crises mean it “might not be easy to meet”.

The report noted that: “Although students on the brink of higher education entry have clearly not been deflected by Covid disruption, it is possible that younger students from socially deprived backgrounds may have failed to get on course for higher education, in terms of attainment and aspiration.

“Research suggests that all students have fallen behind where they would otherwise have been, and that students from more deprived backgrounds have fallen furthest behind.”

With the next target just four years away, the report urges the Scottish Government not to “minimise the task” as it must narrow the gap by half a percentage point each year to meet the 2030 target.

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Higher Education minister Jamie Hepburn said: “The Commissioner for Fair Access makes it clear that Scotland continues to set the pace in the UK in terms of fair access to higher education, with a record number of Scottish students from deprived areas enrolling in university for the first time.

“I would like to thank Sir Peter Scott for his contribution as Scotland’s first Fair Access Commissioner and pay tribute to the lasting legacy he will leave. We will consider the recommendations of the report carefully.

“While excellent progress has been made by our institutions, we cannot let up on the momentum in the face of the challenges that lie ahead.

“We believe every young person should have the opportunity to reach their full potential, no matter their circumstances.”