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

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.

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Notes for editors

  1. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UKs largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. More details about the ESRCs Future of the UK and Scotland programme of activities are available at: and Follow us: @UKScotland.
  2. Presentations from the event will become available at from midday Monday 7 October onwards.
  3. Speakers at the seminar include:
    • Professor Carole Leathwood, London Metropolitan University, on widening access initiatives in England
    • Dr Vikki Boliver, Durham University, on Russell Group Universities and fair access for pupils
    • Dr Gill Wyness, London School of Economics and Political Science, on the role of fees, loans and grants
    • Dr Cristina Iannelli, University of Edinburgh, on higher education and social mobility in Scotland
    • Professor Jim Gallacher, University of Stirling, on the role of Scotland’s colleges
    • Dr Laurence Lasselle, University of St Andrews, on admission policies
    • Dr Dominic Orr, Eurostudent Project, Higher Education Information System, on lessons from Europe
  4. For media accreditation to the event, please contact Fannie Kong (
  5. Separately, ESRC Fellow Professor John Curtice will be holding a presentation on the website at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday 8 October. To book a place for that event please contact Annie Wild (

Susie Watts 
Telephone: 01793 413119

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)


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