Widening access framework


Our commitment to widening access

The University of the Highlands and Islands is committed to achieving widening access, and achieving a fair balance of entrants to higher education.  Widening access can be broadly defined as ‘ensuring fair access to higher education’. Widening access is principally about ensuring that those who have the ability and potential to benefit from a higher education, irrespective of their background or economic circumstances can do so 1.

Our widening access work is embedded within mainstream practice.  The university was established to bring higher education to the communities of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.  Our mission relates not only to these regions, but to all people within these communities and beyond who choose to study with us. 

The University fully supports the recommendations of the Commission on Widening Access.  We are considering the recommendations or the report and how we might address any recommendations that are not currently part of our work. 

We are committed to academic recruitment based on merit, but recognise that fair admissions alone do not always overcome historic disadvantage.  We actively target priority groups, listed later, with initiatives designed to work towards a fair balance of entrants to all our courses, and monitor student population at course level on an annual basis.  This framework provides details of widening access work at the University.  

University strategic plan and widening access

The university’s strategic vision and plan 2015-20 has three broad themes, two of which are very relevant to widening access, these being ‘our students’ and ‘the university for all of our region’.  Within these themes we set out how we will meet these objectives. 

There are also key performance indicators underpinning the strategic vision and plan that are specifically related to widening participation.  In particular, we will:

  1. Work to achieve the same proportion of higher education entrants from targeted areas of rurality and rural deprivation as the working age population. 
  2. Increase  further education entrants from targeted areas of rurality and rural deprivation, seeking a 5% increase. 
  3. Increase progression from further to higher education from 34% to 40%

Our priority groups 

The university identifies priority groups within our outcome agreement.  Priority groups that have been identified within the agreement, and strategic plan, are:

  • schools with lower than average progression to higher education
  • geographic areas of rurality and rural deprivation
  • students from further education or HN backgrounds
  • women in science, through Athena Swan work
  • entrants from SIMD 20 and 40 percent most deprived areas
  • entrants from SHEP schools
  • entrants from protected characteristics groups and care leavers,

With reference to these protected characteristic groups, we seek to achieve a student population that is representative of the region we serve. 

Supporting widening access

The university has a range of methods and work designed to support widening access. Often these initiatives are embedded within mainstream work.


The University is opening a number of dedicated student residences, managed by Cityheart Living (Scotland) Limited. Applications for accommodation from students meeting certain criteria will be designed ‘priority applicants’. A number of rooms in each residence will be reserved for Priority Applicants, and will be allocated based on availability on a first come, first served basis. Priority applicants are:

  • Any applicant from a widening access background.  
  • Any applicant with a physical or mental impairment (as defined under the Equality Act 2010).
  • Any applicant who is a care leaver.
  • Any international applicant.
  • Any applicant going into their first year of full-time study at the university.
  • Any applicant who has a requirement to relocate to start their course.


The university recognises that admissions are a vital aspect of widening participation, and we are committed to recruitment that does not discriminate.  However, we acknowledge that overcoming historic disadvantage requires more than simply ensuring fairness.  Contextualised Admissions is now established as part of the university’s Admissions Policy and practice, with the aim of mitigating the impact of contextual factors as barriers to progression to HE.  Adopting this specific policy formalises the existing inclusive approach of the university, enabling monitoring in this area.  Admissions procedures have been enhanced to process applications in order to support contextualised admissions.  Guidance has been developed for academic staff on how to identify and assess an applicant who has been flagged as having one or more contextual factors.

Student Carers

The university welcomes students who have caring responsibilities and recognises that this group of students may have particular challenges in juggling their home responsibilities with their studies.  A carer is defined as ‘‘anyone who cares, unpaid, for a family member or friend who is ill, frail, disabled or has mental health or addiction problems’ (Carers Trust Scotland).   The university is committed to providing all our students with a positive experience whilst they are studying with us and to offering the support and opportunities that help them fulfil their potential.

Care Leavers

The university welcomes students who have previously spent time, or whom are currently, in care, and recognises that this group of students may experience particular challenges which require additional support measures.  The university is committed to providing all our students with a positive experience whilst they are studying with us and to offering the support and opportunities that help them fulfil their potential.  Student carers are included in our work through transition coordinators employed at academic partners.  These posts directly support student carers through practical and personal support.

Recognition of prior learning

As part of our commitment to widening access to higher education we encourage applications from prospective students who do not have formal entry qualifications.  As part of this commitment, the University supports the principle of recognising prior learning wherever it occurs.  Provided the learning can be assessed, it may be recognised and credit awarded and / or entry to a formal programme of study allowed.  We also encourage prospective students to apply for recognition of previous formal qualifications for either entry to courses, or credit toward specific qualifications.  See our RPL webpage for more information. 

Access courses

For people who have been away from study for some time, or don’t have the usual entry requirements for a HN or degree, we have a range of access courses to choose from.  Access courses introduce new students to higher education study and provide the necessary skills to successfully complete a HN or degree qualification at university.  Many also have subject - specific content so students will be studying the subject of their interest during the access year.  Upon completion, students move into the first year of their chosen subject. See our range of access courses

It is also important to note that the University of the Highlands and Islands is a partnership of thirteen independent colleges and research institutions. The Post-16 Education (Scotland) Act makes the University of the Highlands and Islands, through a further education regional board, accountable for all college and university-level education in the Highlands and Islands. Within this context it makes little sense to talk of ‘partnering’ with colleges, as the university itself is a partnership of colleges and institutions, delivering further and higher education at all levels of the SCQF. 

Most academic partners provide a mix of courses which provide access routes into further study.  Courses meet the needs of the local area and learners.  Additionally, where possible, programmes are networked to other campuses, removing potential obstacles to learning presented by distance within the region. 


It is possible to join the university with a HNC or HND for direct entry to year 2 or 3 of one of our degree programmes.  We encourage applications from students with non-traditional qualifications, including those coming direct from college with a HNC or HND. In addition to accepting applications from any student with a HN qualification, we also have articulation agreements with selected colleges, including North East Scotland College and SWAP East. This allows entry at a specific level on completion of one of their courses.  Further information is available here

School liaison

Widening access is very much at the heart of school liaison activity. The University works closely with Aspire North and has a place on their advisory board. School partnerships are overseen by the UHI Regional Schools Group. The Regional Schools Group aims to develop and oversee the delivery of a partnership-wide strategy for increasing the range of the curriculum (further and higher education) offered to and utilised by schools and school pupils. The work of the group includes facilitating an appropriate local delivery model with academic partners up to and inclusive of SCQF Level 7. School liaison is focused on raising aspirations, especially amongst groups who are known not to be progressing to higher education. This work is informed by the strategic plan, outcome agreement and agreed priority groups.

The delivery of higher education level courses in school settings builds on the already strong relationship of the university’s colleges with their local schools.  The majority of institutions within the university partnership offer a wide range of curriculum at SCQF level 4-7 to school pupils. In 2013-14 the numbers of students enrolled on these programmes across the partnership was approximately 3,000.

Mature students

The university has recently become a partner of SWAP East (Scottish Wider Access Programme). This is a consortium made up of colleges and universities in Scotland. Its aims are to promote access to higher education for adult learners who have been out of education for some time, who have few or no formal qualifications, who come from traditionally under-represented groups in HE.  The university works with SWAP to facilitate appropriate progression routes for students who successfully complete their SWAP access programme to go on to HN or degree courses at UHI.


The student mentoring brings together more experienced students with those new to higher education to share their knowledge and experience. Mentoring support provides training and a structure for more experienced students to help those new to the University. Mentoring can take place through the formation of study groups, by providing presentations to new students, or as one to one mentoring. There is also the option to meet online or by email with mentors when they are based at another campus. Mentoring helps all students, but we are particularly interesting in how it can help students from a widening participation background. Find out more about mentoring here

Student support

Student support is continually enhanced, and always with a view to widening participation students.  In keeping with the overall aims of widening access at the University, student support for widening access students is mainstreamed. Of particular benefit to widening access students has been:

  • The Essential Student Skills project. The project sought to level the playing field and offer all students the same high quality study skills resources via an online portal. The resources are designed to cover the whole student journey and are generic in nature.
  • The development of an online counselling service, available to students throughout the University, including those who are geographically remote.
  • Personal Academic Tutors, the role of PATS is designed to support students academically, and guaranteed appointments each semester are particularly useful for students who may be unsure about the higher education experience.
  • The range of available mainstream student support is highlighted to widening participation students through targeted emails. These are sent at regular intervals throughout the academic year, highlighting services to targeted students.

Student feedback and the Red Button 

The university is committed to enhancing the student experience.  The Red Button is a web-based informal problem-resolution and feedback mechanism. Students may use the Red Button to let us know how we are doing, or if they encounter an issue. The service is particularly useful for widening access students who may not know who to contact, or may not feel comfortable speaking to a member of staff directly. It is a useful mechanism for ensuring fairness, and in providing an easy access route to problem resolution for diverse issues that certain protected characteristic, and other groups may experience. Visit the Red Button page

Equality and diversity work

We are taking a regional approach to developing and reporting on our equalities work by looking across the partnership, taking account of the equalities work of our Academic Partners and the institution as a whole and bringing it together at a university level through the development of an Equalities Mainstreaming Report.  In order to ensure parity of experience for all students and staff we are also taking a strategic approach to developing Equality Outcomes at an institutional level.  In line with our statutory duties, our Equality Mainstreaming Report and Equality Outcomes will be published on 30th April 2017.