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Access Programmes

What are access programmes?

Access programmes are widely known and accepted as a progression route into higher education (HE), providing an opportunity to access HE for those students who did not progress directly with their qualifications attained at school.

They are commonly delivered locally in colleges that often have formal or informal links to specific degrees. Universities also deliver their own bespoke access programme provision . While some are skills-based, others offer study in discipline areas (Crawford 2014). They are delivered in both face-to-face and online modes (Shah et al. 2014).

How are they used and which groups benefit?

Access programmes are undertaken by both young and mature students who left secondary school with low (or no) academic achievement and are found in many national systems. A study of Australian access programmes found that almost 80% of students who undertake these courses progress into undergraduate degrees. There is also evidence of a concentration of access students in certain disciplines: approximately 70% progress into nursing, teacher education (early childhood, primary and secondary), social work, and other health and science-related disciplines, which may reflect the preferences and gender of those that choose to gain entry this way (Shah and Whannell, 2017). Many students undertake access courses to self-assess their confidence before undertaking undergraduate study (Boyle and Wallace 2011; Shah et al. 2014).

The Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP) was established in 1989. It is a partnership between colleges and universities in Scotland that supports access to HE for adult students. There are two regional partnerships: SWAP East and SWAP West. SWAP access programmes are one year, full-time programmes delivered at colleges across Scotland in a range of disciplines which provide a route into degree programmes at partner universities. The programmes are specifically designed for adults wishing to return to education after a gap, and who have the motivation and ability to go on to study at university or for a higher level qualification at college.

Several universities in Scotland deliver enabling programmes which are designed to support disadvantaged and under-represented groups to access degree programmes in the professions. For example, the Medical School at the University of St Andrews offers a ‘Gateway to Medicine’.  The Gateway provides the opportunity for students who have completed S5 at school to study at first year undergraduate level and then progress to the Medicine course at St Andrews. The purpose of the Gateway is to promote the uptake of HE, specifically the study of Medicine, among those groups that are traditionally under-represented at university. The Gateway is a one-year programme taught in the Faculty of Science with contributions from staff in Medicine. Entrants to the Gateway who pass the year at an appropriate level and meet the other requirements for progression can transfer into the Medicine 6 year degree programme.

Further information and references

Information on the Scottish Widening Access Programme (SWAP)

Information on St Andrew’s Gateway to Medicine

Boyle, A. and Wallace, R. (2011) ‘Indigenous people and e-nabling technologies: An analysis of recent experiences in Northern and Central Australia.’ Kulumun: Journal of the Wollotuka Institute, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 1–14.

Crawford, N. (2014) ‘Practical and profound: Multi-layered benefits of a university enabling program and implications for higher education.’ International Studies in Widening Participation Vol.1, No. 2, pp. 15–30.

McIntyre, J., Todd, N., Huijser, H. and Tehan, G. (2012) ‘Building pathways to academic success: A practice report.’ The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 109–118. doi: 10.5204/intjfyhe.v3i1.110

Shah, M., E. Goode, S. West, and H. Clark. (2014). ‘Widening student participation in higher education through online enabling education.’ Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning Vol.16, No. 3, pp. 36–57. doi: 10.5456/WPLL.16.3.36

Shah, M and Whannell, R. (2017) ‘Open access enabling courses: risking academic standards or meeting equity aspirations.’ Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, Vol. 21 No. 2-3, pp.