A record number of students from the most deprived areas of Scotland secured places at university for the 2021-22 year, meeting an interim target for fair access, but "significant" challenges lie ahead.

The Scottish Government is aiming to ensure that by 2030, students from the 20% most deprived areas in the country occupy 20% of university places.

An interim target of 16% in 2021 was achieved, with the next set at 18% for 2026.

The highest ever number of entrants from Scotland’s most deprived areas was achieved in 2021/22 (5,595) but students from the least deprived areas remain the largest cohort – with their numbers up 8.4% on 2013/2014.

Meanwhile, the share of entrants from deprived areas fell from 16.7% to 16.5%.

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Professor John McKendrick, who is based at Glasgow Caledonian University, was appointed Scotland’s Commissioner for Fair Access in January 2023, taking over from Sir Peter Scott.

In his first annual report in the role, he describes the results as a "qualified celebration", with targets met but "significant" challenges ahead.

Future university entrants will have had to cope with learning through Covid, as well as the cost-of-living crisis while the financial climate in further and higher education is difficult.

Professor McKendrick writes: “A sense of collective purpose has developed. Each of Scotland’s higher education institutions has made some progress in promoting fair access, but there is scope to achieve more.

The Herald: Professor John McKendrick of Glasgow Caledonian University conducted the research

“We should also recognise that the challenges that are faced by many of those who want to access higher education from our most disadvantaged areas – child cost-of-living pressures, family poverty and the poverty-related attainment gap in schools persist at unacceptably high levels, despite the good intentions to work toward reduction, if not eradication.

“Achieving fair access targets is predicated, at least in part, on progress in reducing pressures on family budgets, tackling child poverty and enabling improving the qualifications at SCQF Level 6 of adults and children and adults experiencing poverty to achieve and evidence their potential through school and further education.”

In his report, Professor McKendrick makes 20 recommendations and outlines 10 priorities for the coming year.

These recommendations include: replacing redundant individual institutional targets with a fair access pledge that implores each Higher Education Institution (HEI) to make progress; for The Scottish Government to consider strengthening the remit of the Commissioner to assume responsibility for advising on fair access to the whole of tertiary education; and to widen the scope of fair access to include Graduate Apprenticeships, part-time undergraduate study, and postgraduate study.

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Among his priorities for 2024 are commitments to: examine how inefficiencies in the Scottish Credit Qualification Framework can be tackled; examine what can be undertaken to improve retention rates among students from disadvantaged areas, and; engage with a broader range of stakeholders to promote shared responsibility for achieving fair access in Scotland.

Professor McKendrick introduces his report by saying: "I believe that fair access is a goal worth pursuing. I have no doubt that there continues to be untapped potential that is not being realised. My measured opinion is that we can achieve fair access, but that the challenge cannot be under-estimated.

"I will endeavour to match your commitment to fashion a nation in which those with ability, and potential ability, from Scotland’s most disadvantaged backgrounds can realise their potential through higher education."

The annual report can be read here