The History of Access to University

Posted on January 25, 2023 | in Archives, Collections, CRC, Volunteers | by

Ash Mowat is one of our volunteers in the Civic Engagement Team. Ash has been researching the history of access to study at University, via our University Archives and shares that information with us here.

Introducing Ash: I was born and have lived in Edinburgh most of my life. I attended University of Glasgow in the late 1980s where I hoped to complete an honours degree in English literature, but unfortunately due to ill health I was only able to obtain a degree at ordinary level. I have diverse interests in literature, the visual arts and science and history. I also worked for almost 25 years in social housing and have a passion for social justice, and equalities.

This piece outlines the history of access, affordable or otherwise, to University Education. It primarily focuses on the 20th century unto the present, and some features will apply to UK Universities and not just University of Edinburgh or other Scottish Universities, as many of the laws and practices were implemented by UK Government. Some aspects, however, are particular to Scotland following devolution in 1999.

Robert Anderson (Professor emeritus of History University of Edinburgh) summarises the changing systems of fees and grants available for university students to pay or access.[1] He highlights the period between 1962 and the 1990’s when ‘University education in the UK was effectively free as the state paid students’ tuition fees and also offered maintenance grants to many’. There is also a brief summary of grants available in early periods.

The following tables aims to summarise some of the history of changes in direct and indirect accessibility to a University education.

Dates History
19th Century There was no free access to study at University in Scotland, however unlike in England there were some State grants, but not wider UK Government supplementary benefits like rent assistance, as these would not come into effect until the implementation of the Welfare state in the 1940s. Fees and living costs were also low in Scotland, in comparison to English Universities, especially the prodigious ones like Oxford and Cambridge.

In the pre second world war period, those on lowest incomes in the UK could be given a Board of Education Endowment to fund their University studies. This came with the proviso that on graduation they undertook one year in teacher training and subsequently worked for several years as a school teacher. If they failed to honour this, their grant would have to be repaid. Interestingly in this period, students from middle and upper classes disproportionally studied subjects in the likes of medicine and engineering, whilst those from lower income backgrounds tended to study in the arts, perhaps a reflection of the higher fees and costs associated with subjects like medicine. Male students even from lower income backgrounds tended to see their financial, career progression and class status greatly improved following graduations, an outcome not reflected equally amongst female graduates, many of whom if went on into employment would see their careers often constricted such as to be within the School teaching sector.[2]

1962 to


There were no fees payable to study at UK Universities in this period as there were met by the state. Maintenance grants were available to those without their own funding means or from parental income. By 1963 almost 70% of UK University students were receiving grants from UK Government state funding.

Wider benefits were available from UK Government, including Housing Benefit to meet in part or full rental costs. Students could keep this Housing Benefit and therefore retain accommodation over University holidays, and if eligible claim unemployment benefits in the breaks between terms.

However, by the mid-1990s UK Government Benefits such as Housing Benefit and Income Support were abolished for most full time students (one exception being lone parents), with the Government argument being that students should receive financial assistance solely from the further Education system only and not also from the wider Welfare system.

1979 to 1988 Access University systems in Scotland. Access schemes, where students without standardly required qualifications could gain entry to study at University level, were introduced in Glasgow University (1979), Dundee University (1980), Aberdeen University (1984), Strathclyde University (1985), and Edinburgh University in 1998.

These were often ran in partnership with local colleges and were limited in number of students permitted annually. The subsequent introduction withdrawal of grants and access to Welfare Benefits as detailed below, served to undermine the viability of the access and general admission routes into a University education from those without their own or parental means of funding or support.[3]

Image shows Newspaper Article on Access Course Launch

31st May 1988 newspaper article on access course launch (EUA IN1/ADS/SEC/CRR)

April 1988 From April 1988, a series of incremental cuts were introduced by the UK Government reducing rates of Housing Benefit and supplementary benefit (financial benefits payable to students during summer term break). This was exacerbated by introduction of the Community Charge, more commonly referred to as the “Poll Tax”, a despised and unjust tax as was charged as a flat rate on all individuals regardless of wealth. The hugely unpopular Poll Tax (in a poll 78% of UK population opposed it) led to protests across the UK culminating in a huge rally of over 200,000 people in Trafalgar Square London in 1990 where serious rioting ensued. The Poll Tax was subsequently abolished and replaced by Council Tax in 1993, a still problematic tax but one based on property value and with ability to pay aspects and rebates available. No Council Tax is payable in properties exclusively occupied by full time students.[4]



In November 1989, in what was reported as the biggest ever to date UK University demonstration, a march and rally took place to protest the viewed as unfair Student Loan scheme being introduced from 1990. Over 20,000 were estimated to have attended. The introduction of Student loans was driven by the UK Government seeking to withdraw Welfare state benefits from those in further education.[5]

On their introduction in 1990, some 180,000 UK students took out a loan in the first year, for a then average of £390.00.[6]

1991 The 1991 Student Hardship Report of the Scottish Presidents Group demonstrates the impact on loss of benefits on students. Rents had increased by 11% in one year from 1990 to 1991. In the same time students who previously received housing benefit during the summer vacation to cover rent and now having this entitlement cancelled, were losing £457.00 over a 15-week period. (Edinburgh figures, equivalent to £1229.00 today). Income Support was also withdrawn with the UK Government reasoning that students would be able to find work during holidays and thereby afford rent and living costs without welfare assistance. However when this was introduced 36% of Edinburgh University students said they could not find work (this was during the height of a major recession), and a further 34% couldn’t be available for work due to their course study commitments.

Nevertheless the numbers of students who were also required to work during term time continued to rise, despite the pressures to combine this with adequate time to manage their studies.

Despite the UK Government assertion that students should fair equally or better under the student loans system, 54% of Edinburgh University students polled stated they were worse off than under the previous system of grants and welfare benefits. The report concludes, “Students are encouraged to acquire significant debts, with little prospect of lucrative employment at the end of their studies to repay these debts. The policy seems, at best, unlikely to encourage increased numbers of students to enter higher education.”[7]

The 1991 student hardship report of the Scottish Presidents Group, EUA IN1/ADS/SEC/CRR

1998 The reintroduction of tuition fees to enrol at UK Universities was implemented by UK Government, with fees set initially at £1000.00 per annum.
2001 From April in Scotland, the Graduate Endowment Scheme was introduced. This brought in University study in Scotland without any tuition fees, however on graduation a fee of £2000.00 was repayable by the student. [8]
2004 Tuition fees increased to £3000.00 per annum. [9]
2006 From this year, student loans could be issued to meet not just living costs but to cover tuition fees. [10]
2007 The Scottish Government introduce free tuition fees to Scottish students, or students from other nationalities whose home has been in Scotland for at least three consecutive full years. Student loans remain in place to assist with living costs. [11]
2010 Tuition fees to students at English Universities increased to £9000.00 per annum (currently £9250.00 per annum). [12]

In addition to the affordability of studying at University, one question raised is the outcome for the graduate in terms of student loan debt burden and prospective career benefits in having a degree. Before going into the dry financial bones of the issue, it is worth reflecting that people choose to go to University primarily for the joy and enrichment of learning in the subjects of their choice, and for the wider social and personal development experiences that come with it.

Price Waterhouse Coopers in their 2007 report The Economic Benefits of a Degree, included one somewhat start and contrasting result based on choice of subject studied. Those studying Medicine or Dentistry could expect to see an additional lifetime earnings premium of £340,000 throughout their working career as a consequence of their specific degree obtained. Conversely, the lifetime earnings premium for an arts graduate is just £35,000. [13]

The burden of student loans accrued by students needs to be considered and can be off-putting to many potential University applicants. In England the average student loan debt is currently £45,000, whilst for Scottish students entitled to free tuition fees the average debt is much lower at £15,000.

Student loans accrue interest currently around 6% per annum, but don’t have to begin repayments until salary exceeds £27,295 per year, and even then by phased instalments: e.g. on a salary of £31,295 per year, annual repayments to loans would be £360.00. Student loans cannot be entered into bankruptcy, but any remaining balances will be written off automatically after 30 years (and earlier if individual is disabled and unable to work).

If you’d like to know more information about the archival documents consulted during the writing of this article, you can get in touch on

[1],at%20%C2%A31000%20per%20year. Accessed on 07/12/22.

[2] Accessed on 07/12/22

[3] Students/Access Courses, 1986-10-01 – 1988-03-01, 31st May 1988 newspaper article on access course launch. Accessed on 30/11/22.

[4] April 1988, 1987/1988 – The Student ( Accessed on 07.12.22.

[5] “biggest ever student march slams loans” Accessed on 7th December 2022.

[6] take up statistics 1991-2005 ( accessed 0n 7th December 2022

[7] ‘”The 1991 student hardship report of the Scottish Presidents Group”, Students/Access Courses, 1986-10-01 – 1988-03-01, University of Edinburgh Archives. Accessed on 07/12/22.

[8] untitled ( accessed on 7th December 2022

[9] Timeline of tuition fees in the United Kingdom – Wikipedia accessed on 7th December 2022

[10] The Education (Student Loans for Tuition Fees) (Scotland) Regulations 2006 ( accessed on 7th December 2022

[11] The Education (Fees and Awards) (Scotland) Regulations 2007 ( accessed on 7th December 2022

[12] Timeline of tuition fees in the United Kingdom – Wikipedia accessed on 7th December 2022

[13]!AjnBrv_NtsULlRV4RgGY1sjnK-O1 accessed on 7th December 2022

Comments are closed.

Follow @EdUniLibraries on Twitter


Default utility Image Archival Provenance Project: Emily’s finds               My name is Emily, and I’m the second of the two archive interns that...
Default utility Image Archival Provenance Project: a glimpse into the university’s history through some of its oldest manuscripts               My name is Madeleine Reynolds, a fourth year PhD candidate in History of Art....


Sustainable Exhibition Making: Recyclable Book Cradles In this post, our Technician, Robyn Rogers, discusses the recyclable book cradles she has developed...
Default utility Image Giving Decorated Paper a Home … Rehousing Books and Paper Bindings In the first post of this two part series, our Collection Care Technician, Robyn Rogers,...


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.