Student access to higher education in England and Scotland under the spotlight

    Press/Media: Press Release


    Students from more socially advantaged backgrounds continue to be over-represented at the most selective universities in England and Scotland, an audience of academics and policy makers will hear next Tuesday (8 October) at a seminar at the University of Edinburgh. That's in spite of the two countries' different funding policies and accompanying approaches to widening access to higher education since Scottish devolution.

    The seminar is part of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)'s Future of the UK and Scotland research activities, which aim to inform the independence referendum debate and policymaking, whatever the outcome.

    A team led by Professor Sheila Riddell, ESRC Research Fellow, and her colleagues at the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity, University of Edinburgh, are looking at the future of higher education as part of the ESRCs activities, and are organising the seminar. Academics from Scotland, England and other parts of Europe will discuss what future differences might emerge in widening participation and fair access in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

    The University of Edinburgh team have reviewed current academic evidence around student access in a briefing for the event. Issues they have identified are:

    • Despite free undergraduate tuition, the majority of young people attending university in Scotland continue to come from middle class backgrounds
    • While there is no evidence to date that fees have reduced the number of people from less privileged backgrounds applying to enter higher education in England, there has been a drop in the number of mature students
    • Private school pupils, and those from professional and managerial backgrounds, remain significantly over-represented in the most selective institutions in both countries
    • Over the past decade there has been more emphasis in England on policies to widen access than in Scotland, but there is growing emphasis in Scotland on such policies including the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Act 2013
    • Grants and bursaries for poorer students tend to be more generous in England than Scotland
    • More evidence is needed on what actually works to help people from less socially advantaged backgrounds gain a higher education.

    Professor Riddell said:

    "Universities and the Westminster and Scottish governments have the stated ambition of widening access. That's the intention. Scotland has been slightly behind England in initiatives aimed at widening access in the past, and it is now placing more emphasis on this issue.

    But we continue to see students from more advantaged backgrounds over-represented at the most selective higher education institutions in Scotland and England."

    The briefing paper (PDF, 759Kb) written by Professor Sheila Riddell and her team accompanies this release.

    Period3 Oct 2013

    Media coverage


    Media coverage

    • TitleStudent access to higher education in England and Scotland under the spotlight
      Media name/outletEconomic and Social Research Council


    • widening access
    • higher education
    • referendum