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Are relatively high entrance requirements in Scotland an issue for widening access?

May 26, 2015

The Guardian’s 2015 university league table was published this week. The table is intended as guide for students and is built up from detailed  information collected course by course (it does not take research ranking into account).

Often, HE league tables prompt a news release from the Scottish Government or Universities Scotland.  This one hasn’t yet done so, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of interest for Scottish readers.  This one in particular suggests a line of inquiry for the Commission on Widening Access.

The table here (by this author) – Guardian table 2015 – shows how Scottish universities rank within the UK across the various measures used in the table. The Guardian has published  detailed methodology notes on each of its measures and how they are combined.

The Scottish results largely blend in with the rest.  Students’ satisfaction with their course  is less good than across the UK as a whole, but satisfaction with teaching fares better: Scotland has three of the top ten in the UK, even if it still weights a  little towards the lower end overall.  Scottish institutions do proportionately better on career results 6 months out, and  also on “value added” (St Andrews stands out in the UK for its combination of high entrance qualifications with high “added value”).

Where Scotland stands out most, however,  is the “average entry tariff”, that is, the exam results of entrants.  The figures deal specifically with entrants under 21 to full-time first year courses, as measured using UCAS points (see footnote).  The figures will include students from elsewhere in the UK and overseas, as well Scotland.

For exam scores on entrance, Scottish institutions cluster in the top half of the table. Thirteen of the fourteen Scottish institutions featured are in top half of the listings.  Five are in the top twenty, out of a total UK sample of 119.  In other words, entrance to university courses in Scotland appears to involve higher exam results than in the UK as a whole: the opportunities to get on a degree course with less good results are more limited.

If this is a real result, and not an artefact of the way results are counted (see below), there is an issue here for the Commission on Widening Access.

Many will welcome higher entrance qualifications as the sign of a system which is preserving its standards: that would be one reasonable response.  However, there are also strong signs that, however much work is put into raising aspiration and dedicated access initiatives,   attainment at school still has the largest impact on access (see here, though other research makes similar points).  The more selective the system, the greater the challenge in raising attainment.

There are plenty of health warnings to apply here.  Though this uses well-established UCAS scoring for exam results (the UCAS tariff system is here), it’s possible these over-weight Highers against the A levels and BTECs mainly used in England. Also, more students in Scotland move into degree course from Year 2 onwards,  from an HN course in an FE college.  They will not show here, though the numbers may not be large enough to make a substantial difference to the overall results.

Also, if the issue is access to any form of higher education rather than university-level HE, then the extensive provision of HN-level HE in Scottish FE colleges, not included here, matters too.  However, if access to university level HE is the issue (as recent statements by the First Minister suggest is the case), then these comparisons look relevant.  They would, for example, raise questions about how far tighter number controls on the system in Scotland may be affecting entrance requirements.  There is already some evidence that candidates with lower qualifications are more likely to go to study elsewhere in the UK (although border crossers tend to be from more advantaged backgrounds).

Last of all, all league tables are full of arguable assumptions  and need to be read with a bit of critical scepticism.  The figures for student: staff ratios and spend per student (and indeed employment) will be affected by the mix of courses provided: Scotland has traditionally had larger proportion of students in medicine and health-related subjects, for example.  The Guardian figures are designed principally to be used to compare the same course at different institutions: the aggregate university figures are a by-product of that.  Some Scottish institutions  feature only in subject tables and not in the overall rankings, because they are relatively specialised.

Even allowing for all that, if the entrance tariff comparisons here are right in revealing a relative absence of lower-tariff opportunities to enter university in Scotland, then this is likely to be one of the “barriers to access” the Commission has been asked to identify.  That does not preclude Scottish policy makers and politicians deciding this is a barrier they wish to leave in place: but  if it could be affecting Scotland’s relative performance on widening access, it is at least worth exploring and discussing.

Footnote: the way entrance tariffs have been measured

From http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/may/25/methodology-behind-the-guardian-university-guide-2016

g. Entry scores

Average tariffs are determined by taking the total tariff points of first-year first-degree full-time entrants who were aged under 21 at the start of their course, if the qualifications that they entered with could all be expressed using the tariff system. There must be more than seven students in any meaningful average and only students entering year one of a course (not a foundation year) with certain types of qualification are included. Departments that are dominated by mature entrants are not considered appropriate for this statistic because the age filter would only capture and represent the entry tariff of the minority of students.

Caveat: This measure seeks to approximate the aptitude of fellow students that a prospective student can anticipate. However, some institutions run access programmes that admit students on the basis that their potential aptitude is not represented by their lower tariff scores. Such institutions can expect to see lower average tariffs but higher value-added scores.

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