Aberdeen Students Featured in National Widening Access Campaign

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This article was written by Saskia Harper on April 15, 2024 and published by The University of Aberdeen. 


The extraordinary stories of students who entered higher education from a non-traditional route are being highlighted in a new national campaign by Universities Scotland.

The 40 Faces campaign features students and graduates from universities across the country, including those from the University of Aberdeen.

Politics and History student Kirsten Koss is the first in her family to attend university after attending college first. She said: “Having been out of education for four years, I enrolled in HND Social Sciences at North East Scotland College. Although I wanted to go to university, I had never really believed that it was something I was capable of, but studying at college inspired me.

“Through the disability service, the University paid for me to have a two-hour appointment with an educational psychologist who confirmed an ADHD diagnosis. This has given me access to specialist software and support which have made such a difference to my mindset. I am a lot kinder to myself now that I know why I might struggle more than others despite being academically capable.

“I think widening access starts at the very beginning. It’s important that children across Scotland have access to well-resourced schools with diverse sets of opportunities, no matter where they live in Scotland.”

Medical students Shahzad Ahmed and Erraid Davies also shared their stories for the campaign, having joined the University of Aberdeen through their Gateway2Medicine partnership with NESCol.

Shahzad said: “When I moved to the UK at the age of 10, I faced difficulties with my studies as English was not my first language. Even though I did not initially get the grades required to apply for Medicine, I never gave up on my dream.

“Despite people doubting my abilities, I was fortunate enough to be accepted for the Gateway to Medicine program, which I completed before starting the Medicine course. I am currently in my 4th year of Medicine, and I am grateful for the Gateway to Medicine program for helping me achieve my dream.”

Erraid added: “The University has been incredibly supportive of me throughout my almost seven years here. I was accepted into the Gateway2Medicine course and was supported the entire year, not just academically but socially, personally, and financially. I was then accepted into Medicine and again felt supported.

“I received an entrance scholarship throughout my degree, which helped me massively financially. I have also been supported with disability provisions due to my dyslexia and a childhood hip problem, without which I would not have made it through exams, assignments and placements.”

The University of Aberdeen Access and Articulation Team works with individuals, secondary schools and Further Education Colleges to support learners at every stage of their journey, meeting sector leading widening access criteria. Its Access Aberdeen Programme ensures potential applicants have all the information, advice and guidance needed to make informed choices about their next steps into university. The Reach Programme, part of the Scottish Funding Councils National Schools Programme, provides support for young people applying for Medicine and Law degrees as well as signposting for applicants wishing to study Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine.

Sally Middleton, Access & Articulation Manager at the University of Aberdeen said: “We at the University of Aberdeen are keen to encourage students from the widest possible range of backgrounds to participate in university studies.

“We appreciate that not all students have the same opportunity to meet our advertised entry requirements, so we take a wide range of contextualised information into account when making decisions on the applicants.

“In addition to this, we are building a suite of online access courses as we recognise that not every student has the same opportunities to study a full range of courses while at school.

“We also offer a range of scholarships and bursaries as well as transition events so all students can engage and participate fully in their university experience once they arrive.

“We are proud to support the 40 Faces campaign, believing passionately that Universities and wider society will benefit from a diverse population of students. In order to meet the 2030 widening access targets we must all actively support the aspirations of our young people, whether in school, college or university, whilst ensuring the sector has the support it requires to achieve this goal.”

The Universities Scotland “40 Faces” campaign aims to champion the diversity and success of widening access programmes from universities and higher education institutions from across Scotland.

“40 Faces” launches with only six years left for Scotland to reach the fair access targets, originally set by the Commission for Fair Access in 2016 and supported by the Scottish Government and by universities themselves. Universities have made major strides towards the 20% target, hitting interim milestones in 2021 and introducing the most progressive admissions policies in the UK, in support of this goal.

However, with six years remaining to reach the targets in 2030 progress has plateaued in the face of mounting challenges including the legacy of lost-learning in schools during the pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis, and the persistent attainment gap in schools.

New polling, commissioned by Universities Scotland from Censuswide as part of the campaign, gives an insight into graduate attitudes towards widening access. When asked what factors are most important to widening access, over 600 graduates aged 24 to 40 who went to university in Scotland identified the following priorities:

  • 38% said diverse routes into university are important
  • 34% said that connections between schools, colleges and universities are key
  • 28% said increasing the amount of non-repayable grants and bursaries available to students during studies is important
  • 25% said investing more money in the education and wider support needs of each access student during their studies is important
  • 25% said improving attainment in schools is important to the access agenda

The polling data is a strong fit with the themes emerging from the lived experience as shared by the 40 Faces featured in the campaign. Four themes emerged most strongly, as key to making further progress. They are:

  • Start young on self-belief. Schools and universities must continue to cultivate a strong and inclusive sense of belonging amongst underrepresented communities.
  • Join things up. Achievement of the 2030 goals will only be possible with a holistic approach that sees progress at school, college and university level, including significant progress in the poverty-related attainment gap in schools.
  • No wrong path. Multiple routes into university need to be available to suit diverse needs and offer second chances and equal access to chances later in life.
  • Money matters. From the perspective of student finance, which focused more on non-repayable grants and bursaries, and the funding available to universities to support access initiatives and investment on a per student basis.

The “40 Faces” in the campaign reflect the diversity of underrepresented students including: students from the most deprived 20% of postcodes; those from low-participation schools; students with care experience and/or estranged from their families. It also includes mature learners, those who have progressed to university through a college route and those who have gone to university after years in the workforce.

Commenting on the campaign, Claire McPherson, Director Universities Scotland said: “Participation in Scotland’s universities is at its most inclusive, and Scotland’s 19 universities and higher education institutions have truly shifted the dial on widening access. Admissions policies in Scotland are more progressive than anywhere else in the UK, with institutions working together for the benefit of people across the country, regardless of their route to university.

“Our universities are committed to widening access, however they cannot achieve this alone.  With our 40 Faces campaign, Universities Scotland want to galvanise the sector and Scottish Government towards the 2030 widening access target, through sharing the lived experience of students and graduates.

“Universities across Scotland continue to  advocate for students from underrepresented communities, even in the face of the erosion of public investment in Scottish domiciled places at university.  Universities offer students opportunities to achieve their dreams of securing a higher education and the skills and career opportunities that follow, while also strengthening their self-belief, building confidence and offering a life-changing experience which cannot be found elsewhere.”