Scottish Wider Access Programme: Supporting adults returning to education

Photo credit: pixabay, tania1974, CC0

In this post, Lesley Dunbar, Director of the Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP), explains how SWAP supports the second strand of the Widening Participation Strategy: ‘Support to Get In’. SWAP offers a strong commitment towards a ‘transparent route into the University for learners undertaking a range of qualifications in a range of settings’. The University is proud to support SWAP (and SWAP East, situated on Buccleuch Place and is a partnership between colleges and universities in the east of Scotland), which aims to support access to higher education for adults returning to education – an important and often overlooked student group. SWAP students are eligible for a context plus flag in Edinburgh’s admissions process and therefore (wherever possible) will be made an offer…

The Scottish Wider Access Programme is a partnership of colleges and universities in Scotland. Our aim is to promote and support widening access to higher education for adults who have been out of education for some time and who, mostly, have qualifications below Level 6. Colleges across Scotland run one year SWAP access programmes to prepare students for entering higher education. Some are specialist, e.g., in Engineering, Medical Studies, Nursing, whilst others such as the Physical/Life Sciences or the Humanities programmes are more general and offer routes into many different degrees. Last year, over 1600 mature students (from as far south as Galloway to as far north as Thurso) studied on a SWAP access programme. Of those who successfully completed the year, over 90% entered higher education. All universities in Scotland offer places to SWAP students.

Students at SWAP East, photo Nick Hutcheon (SWAP East Co-ordinator).

It’s a proven widening access programme that changes lives. 

Gillian’s story

Gillian Wilson originally attended Pennicuik High School and, after having completed S6, entered the labour market – but with the notion that teaching might be a vocational calling. For some 20 years she worked with Air UK and then KLM City Hopper. But when their Edinburgh base was closing she knew that she would need to think about what she did next.  Although her career in the airline industry was satisfying, her increasingly active involvement with her children’s local school resurfaced the notion of teaching.

With strong support from her family, she enrolled on a SWAP Access Programme with a view to studying at the University of Edinburgh.  Gillian matriculated as an undergraduate student here in Edinburgh in 2016 – the first in her family to do so.

Travelling to class each day from Dunfermline, Gillian feels that there is a good bunch of her class that work and study collaboratively.  While the academic challenge is clear, she and her colleagues are more than ready for it, while the support of her peers, as mentioned, along with academic staff. Balancing study and life requires that you are well organised, and it’s clear that her 20 years of professional experience have clearly prepared Gillian for this. The university’s child care fund is vital for Gillian, as she says, ‘it makes a huge difference. The kids are happy and I don’t need to worry about them’.

Gillian’s future plans – after completing her MA (Hons) Primary Education with Scottish Studies at Moray House – are those that first surfaced when in S6; she is going to become a teacher. This really is her vocation.  She adds, ‘if I can do it then you can do it.  Believe in yourself and follow your goals.’

Jenny’s story

Jenny, Access to Nursing Fife College 16/17, and current Dundee University student, writes: Higher education was never going to be on the cards for me as quite an unruly teenager. I was going to get a job straight out of school and go on holiday. And I did. I had a long and often painful childhood that saw me in and out of poverty and with very little a lot of the time. My mother was single and an immigrant that couldn’t read and write English very well. I was one of those children that didn’t have many life chances in terms of education and social status. During high school I skipped many classes and truanted quite often, resulting in either failed exams or not quite getting the grades I had anticipated. In truth, I didn’t really care. Then of course inevitability set in as I grew older and I watched as many of my friends went off to college or university, but I knew that would never happen for me. I wasn’t smart enough or had the patience.

While living in London and having a number of conversations with friends I decided to investigate access to nursing courses at Fife College and applied at age 21 and to my surprise, got in! I still didn’t feel that I would be able to get into university but once I learned that SWAP would offer help and support with your chances of getting into university I was elated. A huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. Finally, I began to think that I, me of all people would go to university!

I am now a mere 4 months away from being a registered nurse! I keep in close contact with SWAP and have even been a mentor for access to nursing students twice on their behalf. Being a SWAP student gave me the ability to do what I knew I could achieve but didn’t have the confidence to! 

For more information on SWAP, please go to: You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook.

Lesley Dunbar

Lesley is the Director of the Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP) East. She leads and directs the work that SWAP does to support students, colleges and universities in accessing routes into higher education for adult returners. She works with and reports to the Scottish Funding Council and the institutions within the SWAP East partnership on widening access. Prior to coming to SWAP, Lesley worked in the college sector in the west of Scotland for over 18 years, in the areas of community learning, international development, short course and outreach activity. She believes passionately that widening participation to disadvantaged groups is not about lowering standards, but is about helping to level the playing field and to give students, who have the potential, the opportunity to succeed within higher education.

The University of Edinburgh is part of the SWAP consortia and hosts SWAP.

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