The stories of students, including those from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), who entered higher education from a non-traditional route is being highlighted in a new national campaign by Universities Scotland.

The ‘40 Faces’ campaign aims to champion the diversity and success of widening access programmes at universities and higher education institutions across Scotland.

Graham Cochrane, an Environmental Management student at SRUC, returned to higher education as a mature student, after working for 20 years.

He said: “Adjusting from almost 20 years of full-time work into full-time education was a daunting prospect. I toyed with the idea for years, but I lacked the self-esteem that I could apply and commit myself to studies.

“I’ve worked in various roles since leaving high school, and it has been in more recent years that my love for the outdoors made me rethink my career and what I would like to focus on in the future. That is to help conserve outdoor spaces and the environment for future generations.”

The campaign launches with only six years left for Scotland to reach the 2030 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, 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.

The success of students like Graham is testament to the role universities can play for those who face significant barriers to accessing higher education.

At SRUC, mature students looking to change career or re-train are offered the chance to apply for a Change Your Path Bursary of up to £1000 to help with the costs associated with fitting study into their lives.

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 24-40 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 among 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 per cent 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, Graham said: “I think entry requirements should be based around showing personal interest, engagement, passion and dedication for a subject rather than just academia.

“Having worked in some of the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland, I think targeted outreach and a presence of universities or colleges in these areas is necessary for people to feel like further education is accessible to someone like them.”

SRUC’s Change Your Path Bursary is open for applications until August 31.

For more information, visit: Change Your Path Bursary.