By Professor Nigel Seaton, Principal of Abertay University

IN 2016, Abertay University took the decision to radically change its approach to admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Building on the report of Dame Ruth Silver’s Commission on Widening Access, and on our own work in this area, we began to admit disadvantaged students on much lower entrance grades, called “access thresholds”.

By way of example, for our BA in Computer Arts we admit disadvantaged students with three Highers at BBB, rather than four Highers at AABB. We were the first university in Scotland to take this approach and, after two years, we are about to admit the third intake of students, so we have considerable experience under our belt.

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What have we learnt? First, as this approach begins to be rolled out by other Scottish universities, we know that it makes a real difference to many people. In 2018, more than 200 Scottish students who joined our university were eligible for an

access-threshold offer (17 per cent

of all the Scottish students we admitted). Many of these students, all of whom have experienced economic and social disadvantage, would not have been able to attend Abertay without this offer, and some might not have been able to follow their chosen course of study at any university.

It is important to recognise that this approach works best when it is tailored to the individual, using a range of indicators, rather than simply being based on the location of the student’s home. At Abertay, these indicators include attending a school where few pupils go on to university, having parents or guardians who have not attended university, having spent time in care, and having taken part in a university access programme.

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It is notable that only about one-third of our disadvantaged applicants live in the poorest fifth of postcode areas, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (or SIMD20), the measure that is currently used

by the Scottish Government to measure progress in access to university.

Significantly, our approach –

using a broad range

of indicators of disadvantage – shows that only about one-third of the students who do apply to Abertay from SIMD20 postcode areas are themselves disadvantaged, in terms of their own personal circumstances. It follows that while the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation is a perfectly good indicator for use in public policy, individual students should not be made an access-threshold offer simply because of where they live.

Finally, it’s important to emphasise that taking these measures to widen access is not an exercise in social engineering.

The Scottish Government wishes more students from less well-off families to go to university, and this ambition is shared by the universities. But at the level of the individual applicant, our approach simply ensures we are recognising potential wherever we find it, while at the same time making sure that our new students have the necessary background for their programme of study.

To return to the example of the Abertay Computer Arts programme, we think it is as tough, and demonstrates as much potential, for a disadvantaged student to get three Bs at Higher as it is for another student to get two As and two Bs.

Widening access to higher education is about opening the door to the best students, while recognising that it is much more difficult for some to demonstrate their ability through exams than it is for others.