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How good is SIMD as a basis for setting HE access targets?

September 7, 2016

Note: updated on 9 Sept for reference to Access Commission recommendation about use of area deprivation measures.


In March this year, the Scottish Government’s Widening Access Commission recommended that (emphasis added):

By 2030, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education. Equality of access should be seen in both the college sector and the university sector.

This has undergone a subtle but significant transformation in the hands of the Scottish Government. Yesterday it confirmed in its Plan for Scotland  that (emphasis added again):

We have set the Government and our universities, along with the wider education system, the challenge of ensuring that by 2030, 20% of university entrants are drawn from the 20% most deprived communities.

I originally thought this move from “background” to “communities” could be traced back to the SNP Manifesto, but in fact the recommendation to use a measure of area deprivation was in the Commission’s report (at page 67), although with a caveat about it being less appropriate for universities in north-east Scotland.

The Commission’s target left open that deprivation might be defined in relatively personal terms – for example family income or employment status, or (getting to the heart of how disadvantage functions down the generations) having no family history of higher education, especially at university level. I’ve spent much of the summer reading research about access to higher education: family background recurs as one of the single most significant factors influencing young people’s decisions.

The Scottish Government’s alternative approach of “deprived communities” keeps things instead within the established practice of using the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) classifications as the basis for measuring progress on access. SIMD is already mildly controversial in the HE sector, with the argument running that area measures are too detached from individual circumstances, and in particular are not so good at picking up deprivation in rural areas (although the Scottish Government has tried to answer this).

The release of detailed SIMD data last week allows some further testing of the relationship between SIMD classification and levels of participation in higher education, by comparing areas’ general SIMD ranking with their detailed data on entry to university. This is still  looking at areas rather than individuals, but it is still useful as a way of identifying how well the portmanteau of measures which make up SIMD specifically predict low levels of entry into university within an area.

The answer is that there’s a clear link, but very many exceptions.

Each dot on the graph below represents one of the almost 7,000 small “datazones” into which Scotland is divided for the purpose of SIMD.  How far a dot is along the bottom line shows where that datazone is ranked in SIMD terms. Those to the far left are the most deprived, those to the far right are the least deprived. How high up a dot is shows what proportion of young people in the area went straight university (there’s more detail on the HE measure used in the post below). The pale horizontal line is the mid-way cut-off: dots below it are areas in the bottom 50% for HE entry, those above are in the top 50%.


It’s immediately clear that while there are relatively few areas with above-average university entry in more deprived areas (though there are some, including some well above), there are many areas with relatively low entry rates towards the right-hand side of the graph. In some very high SIMD ranked areas, HE entry rates are at or close to zero. This looks like evidence that there’s a substantial presence of households less confident or well-placed to get involved in university education right across the SIMD spectrum.

The table below puts some numbers on the relationship between SIMD ranking and  university entry.  SIMD is divided into quintiles, as used by the SG in the contest of access. SIMD 1 and SIMD 2 make up the bottom 40% of areas: these are a particular focus for widening access.  University entry rate is divided into quarters: 1 is the bottom quarter of areas by entry rate, 2 the next up, 3 the next, and 4 the top quarter.

The table shows that in SIMD 1, over 90% of areas have below average entry (62.8% plus 29.8%). In SIMD 2, however, one-quarter of areas (20.3% plus 5.3%) are above average.

Even more strikingly,  1,157 areas in SIMD 3 to 5 have below average levels of university entry. That means one-third of all the areas with below average entry rates are in these higher quintiles.


This analysis reinforces the arguments against linking access targets too closely to SIMD.  Universities Scotland came out this week committing to lower entry requirements for some students, stressing the need for “case by case” judgements. If the SG target is for deprived areas however, the pressure will be greater to use that as the basis for reduced offers. The analysis above suggests that that would lead to some extreme rough justice.

The Scottish Parliament Education Committee met for the first time today and spent some time looking at widening access. The Official Report is not yet available, so I don’t know if this shift in language and its potential implications were picked up. But these figures suggest that the practical effect of a high-profile access target which is area-based could yet come back to bite MSPs hard in their constituencies.  The time to ask some searching questions about what this change in wording will mean would be now.


The Access Commission’s target refers to “higher education” rather than university. However, its remit was specifically to widen access to university, and all the staging-post targets it suggested are specifically for  university entry (also, more than 20% of college entrants already come from SIMD1). So the SNP Manifesto and SG target’s reversion to “university” makes sense.


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