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Durham University

Department of Sociology

Research Projects

Publication details

Boliver, V, Gorard, S, Powell, M & Moreira, T (2020). The use of access thresholds to widen participation at Scottish universities. Scottish Affairs 29(1): 82-97.

Author(s) from Durham


The Scottish Government has set ambitious targets for widening access to full-time undergraduate degree programmes. Meeting these targets will be a real challenge, not least because young people from socioeconomically disadvantaged contexts continue to lag substantially behind their more advantaged peers when it comes to achievement at Higher level. Following the recommendations of the Commission on Widening Access, the Scottish Government has mandated Scottish universities to set separate entry requirements for contextually disadvantaged applicants, known as ‘access thresholds’. In this article, we draw on the findings of a research project commissioned by the Scottish Funding Council to develop an empirical evidence base for the use of access thresholds to widen participation in higher education. We show that access thresholds are mathematically necessary if wider access is to be achieved, and we present evidence demonstrating that applicants admitted with Higher grades lower than the market rate have a high probability of success at degree level. We welcome the widespread use of access thresholds but highlight the scope to be much bolder than is currently the case. We also show that the use of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) to identify contextually disadvantaged learners runs a high risk of failure to reach the intended beneficiaries. We argue strongly in favour of the use of administratively verified individual level measures of contextual disadvantage instead, specifically receipt of free school meals and low household income.

Department of Sociology