Scotland has a world class higher education sector.
We currently have five universities in the top 200 in the world and, each year, students from around 200 nations choose to come to our institutions to study.
It is our belief that a child growing up in Scotland, regardless of their background, should have an equal chance of attending one of our great universities.
I am also clear that widening access is not just about access to Fresher Fairs, but to graduation day and beyond.
Ensuring that students from the most deprived areas of Scotland are supported to achieve their aspirations into, through and beyond higher education is at the core of that.
Those end goals of graduation and positive destinations are central to our thinking as we move forward in the delivery of the Commission on Widening Access' recommendations - and are a key focus and priority for the Government going forward.
Setting out her first Programme for Government, the First Minister made a crucial commitment, telling this chamber that our task was to ensure:
"a child born today in one of our most deprived communities has no less a chance of going to university than a child born in one of our least deprived communities."
She did so because we believe that education is by far the most effective means we have to improve the life chances and deliver the best possible outcomes for everyone.
We have enshrined the principle of widening access in legislation, placing it at the core of what we expect from post-16 institutions and the Scottish Funding Council.
We continue to invest £51 million each year to support places for access students and those transferring from college into university.
We established the Commission on Widening Access in 2015 and accepted its recommendations in full.
Since the publication of the 'Blueprint for Fairness' in 2016 we have: • embedded our targets within university outcome agreements; • introduced a full non-repayable bursary of £7,625 for young care experienced students; and • established an Access Delivery Group to oversee delivery.
And to support this work going forward: • we have provided universities with a real terms budget increase of 1.9%.
And we are making progress.
In December UCAS reported that Scotland reached a new record for the number of acceptances – the only part of the UK to see an increase.
And within that, the acceptance rate for 18 year olds also reached a record, increasing for the third year in a row.
But, more significantly, UCAS also reported a record rise in 18 year olds from our most deprived communities being accepted.
In total, there was a 13% increase in the number of Scots from the most deprived communities getting places to study at a Scottish university.
That means over 600 additional people from the most deprived communities being accepted to study at university.
So, we have a record number of Scots going to university and a record number of Scots from the most deprived communities going to university.
And sitting behind that progress is a change in perception. We are eating away at the idea that university isn't something any child with the ability can achieve.
In fact, just last month UCAS revealed – and I quote – "Scottish 18 year old from the most disadvantaged areas are 67 per cent more likely to apply in 2018 than 12 years ago".
But we must maintain and indeed quicken the pace of change.
As an independent Commissioner, Sir Peter Scott's voice and the challenge he provides to us all, is crucial.
Not only by providing a fresh perspective on the issues that are central to this agenda, but also in continuing to drive forward change.
I would like to thank Sir Peter for his work over the last year. He has established the role of Commissioner as one that provides a significant contribution to access in Scotland.
This statement provides an opportunity today for me to respond to the Commissioner's first annual report.
The majority of the Commissioner's recommendations relate to areas we are already driving forward as a result of the Commission on Widening Access.
He has provided valuable advice on implementation and he has encouraged bolder steps to be taken by the Scottish Government, the Scottish Funding Council and, in his words, most institutions.
I would first like to respond to the Commissioner's call for the Government to make clearer its priorities with regard to our targets and ambitions for access.
This Government recognises that Scotland's colleges are a key part of our higher education system and they play a crucial and valued role in widening access.
Colleges often provide the first step into further and higher education.
And, while a valued place of study in their own right, they can also be a stepping stone on to degree level study at university.
However, we are also clear that students from the most deprived backgrounds are well represented within colleges.
It is within our universities where the greatest inequalities lie.
I am therefore clear that we will continue to prioritise access to university within our work and our targets for fair access.
So let me reiterate once again - no matter their background or circumstances, an applicant should have an equal chance of going to university by 2030.
And when we talk about fair access to university, I don't just mean some universities.
We expect every university to take action now to ensure that, by 2021, 10% of entrants to each university are from Scotland's 20% most deprived backgrounds.
Through the Delivery Group I believe we will continue to see progress towards meeting these targets but members should be assured that I will look to the Funding Council to use the Outcome Agreement process to ensure that delivery is achieved.
I must also make it clear that our targets are for learners of all ages.
Adult students from similar backgrounds should - and will - be given the same priority as school leavers within our work on fair access.
The Framework for Fair Access will identify the best methods to support adult learners into higher education.
And I expect learners of all ages to be considered within work to develop a more coordinated approach to access across Scotland.
My vision is of an efficient and flexible tertiary education system within Scotland.
A system that supports all learners to succeed.
Our work on the learner journey is examining how we can better connect the different parts of our education system and how we can ensure learners' previous education is recognised fairly.
I welcome the Commissioner's recommendations on these areas, and his insights into how such a system can better support learners from our most disadvantaged communities.
As we take forward our work on the learner journey we will take account of the Commissioner's recommendations on:
• the importance of access within the learner journey; • the need to make more imaginative use of first year at university; and • the option for more learners with Advanced Highers to go directly into second year at university should they wish to do so.
The Commissioner also made recommendations on articulation, contextualised admissions and bridging programmes which I fully support.
While Universities have committed to taking action on all these points, we need further clarity on when changes will occur. In each of these areas Universities need to pick up the pace on implementation.
I welcome the very detailed work put in to the development of Implementation Plans by lead delivery partners in all these areas and these will be discussed at the next meeting of the Access Delivery Group.
But as with the overall and institutional targets which I mentioned earlier, I will look to the Funding Council to further intensify their work in these areas if required.
I fully accept the Commissioner's recommendations for the Scottish Funding Council.
This Government recognises the pivotal role that the Funding Council must play if we are to deliver fair access.
I wrote to the Chair of the Funding Council in October last year to set out my expectations and ambitions for the 2018/19 Outcome Agreements.
And I have made clear, in recent discussions with the Funding Council, the way in which I expect it to lead and coordinate delivery of a number of recommendations from the Commission on Widening Access.
The Commissioner asked the Scottish Government to consider any savings produced by a reduction in demand for places from EU students.
We will take future decisions on the higher education budget as part of our annual budgetary process.
But for anyone in the sector who may be thinking that there is a short cut to achieving our targets through a drop in demand elsewhere then let me be very clear.
There is no short cut.
No silver bullet.
Widening Access will require systemic change.
The targets and the timescales we have all accepted from the Commission on Widening Access will not be delivered in any other way.
I also note the Commissioner's recommendations around an increase in funded places.
I fully understand why this recommendation has been made and we will continue to consider its merits.
We are conscious, however, that ultimately we are engaged in reforming the system and this is best achieved by the fairer distribution of publicly funded opportunities.
In the end, widening access will be achieved by building a fairer system rather than continually expanding an unfair system.
And our ambition is for equality throughout that system.
Equality, not just in access but also in those completing and succeeding in their studies.
Equality in the jobs that access graduates can enter once they have finished their degrees.
An equal chance – for them and their children to succeed. Only then can we create a fairer Scotland.