Cuts to funded university places mean qualified middle-income applicants risk being rejected in their bid to get onto popular courses, the fair access commissioner has suggested.

In his final annual report before stepping down, Sir Peter Scott praises support for learners from poorer backgrounds but also highlights grounds for concern.

Scotland has already met an interim target of ensuring 16 per cent of new entrants to full-time, first-degree courses come from the 20% most deprived communities as measured by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). Sir Peter’s report states: “Although progress towards 18 per cent in four years’ time and 20 per cent by the end of the decade cannot be taken for granted… Scotland continues to set the pace in terms of fair access to higher education among the UK nations.”

However, his analysis points to a less positive picture elsewhere amid fears that features of the university admissions process may create tighter, more challenging conditions for better-off applicants.

Unlike England’s tuition fee-based arrangement, the system here is characterised by strict recruitment controls, with ministers predefining the annual funding for teaching Scottish students. This effectively puts a cap on numbers and makes it more likely that application rejection rates will jump when demand for places is strong.

Echoing wider worry over current and future pressures, Sir Peter’s report states: “There has been a persistent and nagging concern that SIMD20 applicants may ‘displace’ better qualified applicants from other SIMD quintiles. In particular, the fear is that applicants in the middle quintiles will be squeezed between SIMD80 applicants, with the qualifications and connections that effectively guarantee them university places, and SIMD20 applicants, who are the focus of fair access efforts. In the past two or three years that concern has tended to abate. But there is always the potential that it could flare up again.”

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Sir Peter suggests there is now a growing danger that many Scots could see their university dreams dashed. “The overall number of funded places has been cut - from 123,225 in 2021-22 to 121,797 in 2022-23,” he says in his report. “Currently, overall applications for 2022 entry are lower than for 2021 entry, but SIMD20 applications have increased. So, it is possible the lower cap on funded places could lead to greater competition - which could reactivate fears about ‘displacement’.”

Sir Peter’s report also calls on the Scottish Government to commit to providing an “adequate number of (fully) funded places in higher education”. It says this will “reduce the possibility that progress towards fair access for the most deprived students might increase competition for places among other social groups”.

Previous analysis of June deadline statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) showed the number of 18-year-old, Scotland-domiciled applicants had surged from 17,160 in 2020 to 19,930 last year. Crucially, there was also an increase in the rejection rate of their applications. Already much higher than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it shot up from just under 32.5% to a little over 36.3% between 2020 and 2021, marking the first rise since 2016.

At the time, Dr Mark Corver, former director of analysis and research at UCAS, told The Herald that Scotland’s “cap and grant” system for managing student numbers was particularly vulnerable to rising demand. He also said demographic trends were adding to the pressure, adding that the UK could see its population of 18-year-olds increase by 25 per cent between 2020 and 2030. Scotland is set for growth of around 20% or just below.

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Dr Corver said: “Unless you adjust the number of places available each year to match the changes in the number of people who have applied, a number control system is inevitably going to lead to harsher treatment of applicants when there’s a surge in demand.”

The Scottish Government has insisted there is no evidence of "significant displacement" at a national level. A spokesman said: “It is the Government’s ambition that every child growing up in Scotland, regardless of their background, should have an equal chance of going to university.”

Commenting on the wider report, Jamie Hepburn, higher education minister, 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.”