SWAP programmes doing well in the north
In 2018, no SWAP programmes ran north of Angus. In 2023, the North East & Highlands programmes comprise near 30% of SWAP East’s student intake. Read the SWAP East’s Director account of the journey from 0 to 234 enrolments – in just 4 years.

In 2018, I approached the Scottish Funding Council, requesting funding to develop programmes and partnerships with colleges and universities in the North-East and Highlands. Already, SWAP’s scoping work had realised that in some areas of Scotland there were few opportunities for adult returners – with few or no formal qualifications – to access higher education in their local area.

In response, funding was given for 3 years; the aims were simple. We needed to create partnerships with colleges in these areas, developing access programmes. Simultaneously we had to forge partnerships with the 3 most northerly universities, so successful SWAP students could progress to these universities. The start saw lots of travel, including 3 attempts to land on Shetland before finally being able to touch down. Hats off to Logan Air for managing a very windy landing – just off the sea. After visiting the campuses, we collaborated to create the programmes, market them and recruit. By the end of the project we had had our first intake of SWAP students on access programmes at 5 new colleges:   North East Scotland College Inverness College West Highland College North Highland College Argyll College AND programmes offered at Orkney & Shetland Colleges.

Fast forward to 2022 and these programmes continue to attract adult returners in increasing numbers. NESCol is the 2nd largest recruiter of SWAP students in the east and this year offered programmes in Medical/Life Sciences, Nursing, Engineering, Arts & Social Sciences, and an Access to Allied Health Professions. From this class, new routes have been given into RGU’s AHP degrees, making an incredible difference to adults in Grampian looking for paths into these professions.  

“Widening access to education and lifelong learning has always been at the heart of what we do at NESCol and this commitment is never more clear than through the partnership we have with SWAP East. The range of SWAP courses at NESCol offers adults an opportunity to start afresh on a new pathway to educational success or a career, whether that be in teaching, nursing or allied health professions. The partnership between NESCol and SWAP East has been a wholly positive and successful one that will continue to go from strength to strength. Robert Laird, Head of Academic Partnerships & Planning, North East Scotland College  

At the same time, I worked with Robert Gordon University, the University of Aberdeen, and the University of the Highlands & Islands to become formal partners within SWAP East. New progression routes were established for hundreds of degree courses across all of Scotland, meaning the work done in establishing SWAP in the North spreads its benefits to every part of the country.  

“RGU joined as a SWAP partner in 2018 as a significant step in our commitment to widening access to university study for adult returners to education. The number of SWAP students attending RGU has increased eight-fold since then. This is a testament to the value SWAP offers adult returners to education and RGU is dedicated to growing this powerful partnership.” Peter Tormey, Head of Widening Participation, Robert Gordon University.

However, for the most northerly of the colleges, there often weren’t enough numbers of interested adults to create whole class cohorts in some subjects, thus limiting access. In response SWAP began talks with UHI Perth to look at how SWAP programmes could be delivered online while still meeting university entry requirements. COVID-19 set the online learning precedent; we knew it could be done. Our hard work paid off; in 2021, the first online Humanities access programme launched, with students enrolling from as far afield as Lewis, Inverness, Ayrshire, Aberdeenshire, and Perthshire. What a success it was, with every finishing student finding a place at university.

Sarah, from the 1st cohort of online students, comments on how she found online learning & then the transition to university: “Last year I did the Access to Humanities SWAP programme with Perth College. The course covered a wide range of subjects, some subjects were really interesting and fun to learn such as Criminology and Sociology and I surprised myself by actually enjoying a few I was dreading, like Politics and History. The course gave me a broad understanding of essay writing skills, which I am extremely grateful for. Learning online was a little daunting for me as it felt like it was hard to interact with my peers, however my attendance was great and it was almost impossible to be late given your classes are practically in your living room! Although the class was online this did not impact engagement with lecturers, they were always readily available to speak to you and very supportive.
On completion of this course I am now at the University of Dundee studying for a BA in Social Work. Starting uni is a huge achievement for me. Going to lectures and being on campus is a great feeling; although sometimes I feel a little imposter syndrome when I am walking around the grounds of the university. I am so thankful for the SWAP EAST team who saw me through my first application to college to my UCAS application and now I am doing a degree in a subject I am passionate about.

The following year, UHI Perth developed their online learning further with a new online Access to Health & Life Sciences. This programme was online all year apart from 2 study weeks at college to carry out practical lab work and assessments. Richard tells us how he has found it: "As a mature student looking for a stimulating and challenging second career, the SWAP Access to Health and Life Science course has opened the door to a huge wealth of opportunities. It has provided the perfect spring board to Higher Education. The learning experience has been second to none; with patient, friendly, enthusiastic and highly professional tutors guiding us towards our goals. The online aspect has been fantastic for me as it's enabled me to engage from a distance, save lots of time and money, whilst juggling work and life! I'm so glad I took the plunge and gave it a go. Great rewards and opportunities lay in front of any that see it through"

The North of Scotland project was a success; it showed there was a demand for SWAP programmes in these areas. We are meeting that demand better than ever. Furthermore, the resultant online programmes mean the barriers to getting back into education are lower than ever for applicants all across Scotland who now may not have to worry about relocation. With over 2,000 students enrolling throughout Scotland each year, the SWAP programmes are a significant and important route for widening access to higher education for adults with few formal qualifications.      
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