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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 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. A number of initiatives are designed to address this: 

  • Contextualised admissions have been developed during the 2015/16 academic year, to be introduced through the University for the following academic year. 
  • Entry requirements are determined according to the academic demands of the programme.
  • Flexible entry options are always offered in place of the usual entry requirements, taking account of other qualifications or experience in place of formal learning.
  • Recognition of prior learning arrangements allow students to gain credit for prior formal or informal learning that they may have gained (see below).

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.

Care leavers

Care leavers are included in our work through transition coordinators employed at academic partners.  These posts directly support care leavers through practical and personal support. 


The student mentor network brings together more experienced students with those new to higher education to share their knowledge and experience. The network provides training and a structure for more experienced students to help those new to the university. The mentor – mentee relationship is an informal one with meetings taking place in cafes and other informal spaces. 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

Our Equality Outcomes Adviser offers an opportunity to articulate equality and diversity on a pan-university basis and refine the original equality outcomes at strategic regional level. The post is supported by two groups. The Equality Outcomes Group which meets quarterly to look at equalities issues relating to students, curriculum and staff across the university. Representatives are drawn from key groups of staff across the university. The second innovation has been the establishment of the Equalities Practitioner Network: this brings together staff from across the partner colleges with an interest in, or responsibility, for equality and diversity in a more informal, information sharing and awareness raising approach. The creation of these two groups is a significant step forward in how the university will manage and enhance our operations and strategy in relation to equalities. Recent developments for students include:

  • The development of an Online Counselling Service
  • The development of an Additional Support Online System
  • Removing barriers to participation and to successful outcomes for Care Leavers
  • The university’s institutional Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) accreditation
  • The development of the university’s Careers and Employability Services

Read our equality progress report here