Promoting fairer access to Scottish Universities – how can this be achieved?

Video, slides and transcript now available – see below. On 25 March 2019, Professor Vikki Boliver of Durham University gave the 2nd annual memorial lecture in honour of the late David Raffe, Professor of Sociology of Education and Director of the Centre for Educational Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.

The video is here (Univ Edinburgh site) and here (YouTube).  The slides are here and the transcript is here

Much of David’s research was concerned with inequalities in education and in the later stages of his career he highlighted inequalities in access to higher education and issues of differentiation within the sector. Professor Boliver’s lecture drew on her recent research in Scotland to consider how we can promote fairer access to university study for disadvantaged applicants.


The Scottish Government is committed to promoting fairer access to higher education and has called upon universities to reduce academic entry requirements for disadvantaged applicants as a vital means of doing so. This approach –‘contextualised admissions’ – recognises that the school attainment of disadvantaged learners does not necessarily do justice to their academic potential but also recognises that standard entry requirements typically exceed the minimum needed to succeed at degree level. Nevertheless, as I show in this lecture, universities are often conflicted about reducing entry requirements given the prestige attached to admitting only high achievers who can be expected to succeed at university as a matter of course.

I lay out the ethical case for reducing entry requirements for disadvantaged learners and go on to examine the issues involved in developing a fair and effective contextualised admissions system. I draw on the findings of a major research project commissioned by the Scottish Funding Council to show that entry requirements could be reduced significantly for disadvantaged learners without ‘setting them up to fail’, and I discuss the scope for more radical reductions in entry requirements in conjunction with more active support for students’ learning whilst at university.

Finally, I argue that contextualised admissions policies must be targeted accurately if they are to be effective, which means using verified individual-level measures of contextual disadvantage, rather than area level measures such as the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD).

Speaker biography

Vikki Boliver is a Professor of Sociology at Durham University and a member of the Durham Evidence Centre for Education and the Centre for Global Higher Education. Vikki’s research focuses on understanding and addressing socioeconomic and ethnic inequalities in patterns of application and admission to higher education, especially the UK’s most prestigious and academically selective institutions. She recently completed a research project for the Scottish Funding Council on the use of contextual data to widen participation in Scottish universities, and was a member of the Scottish Framework for Fair Access Development Group. Vikki currently sits on the Scottish Government’s Access Delivery Group.