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Addressing socioeconomic inequality in access to university education : an analysis of synergies and tensions in Scottish policy

Sosu, Edward M. and Smith, Lauren N. and Santoro, Ninetta and McKendry, Stephanie (2018) Addressing socioeconomic inequality in access to university education : an analysis of synergies and tensions in Scottish policy. Palgrave Communications, 4 (1). ISSN 2055-1045

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International research suggests that access to higher education has a significant impact on individuals’ life chances and their standard of living, yet university student populations often do not reflect the broader societies from which they are drawn. In Scotland, where students from wealthy backgrounds are four times more likely than students from lower income backgrounds to go to university, reducing the higher education access gap has become a key government policy priority. This study investigates synergies and tensions in contemporary Scottish policies aimed at widening access to higher education. The data for analysis consisted of 35 key Scottish policy documents on widening access to university published from 2011 to 2016. Drawing on the work of key social justice theorists (Rawls, Young and Sen) as our analytic framework, we identified important synergies which include policy interventions targeting the multiple causes of the access gap. We also identified tensions in the form of widening access policy ambitions being tempered by meritocratic admissions processes that do not favour the most disadvantaged, as well as financial support systems that may lead to higher debt burden for students from low income households. We make recommendations for financial support and high-quality guidance for students from low income families and call for regulations requiring universities to demonstrate the impact of their access policies and strategies. Attending to these synergies and tensions will contribute to increased equity and access to university for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.