Philip Banks, chief inspector for post-16 education, told The TES Scotland last week: "What this research shows is that the Advanced Higher is a rock-solid qualification despite some of the doubts that have been expressed."
Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, said the research shows the Higher Still programme "can both maintain the characteristic breadth of Scottish education and, in the Advanced Higher, provide a depth of study more commonly associated with the A-level system. This has clear implications for the response of higher education. Where advanced standing, or credit, is offered for A-levels, we expect this to apply equally to the Advanced Higher."
Ron Tuck, chief executive of the SQA, which conducted the study on behalf of the Scottish Office, said: "The conclusion we would draw is that Scottish universities should treat applicants with Advanced Highers on the same basis as they would A-level students."
The SQA examined course content in Highers, the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies, the Higher Still qualifications and A-levels. It also studied instructions for markers, candidate evidence and examination papers in English, maths, physics and history.
This is the first time a direct comparison of this kind has been attempted. The Higher has traditionally been described as "the Scottish equivalent of the English A-level", although this has never been based on any research or officially confirmed. The comparison has assumed that three Highers are the equivalent of two A-levels, which the SQA's report dismisses as "crude and misleading".
Mr Tuck says the results highlight the critical importance of the grade achieved by an exam candidate not just the overall award. This is because A-levels (A-E passes) certificate a wider ability range than the Advanced Higher (A-C).
While four good A-level passes (three As and a B or two As and two Bs) might equate to five good Higher passes (all As), one pass at A-level (E) is judged equivalent to "one moderately good Higher pass" (B). The result, the SQA summary states, is that "study at Higher level followed by Advanced Higher will be equally demanding in standards and depth to A-level".
The SQA believes this should cause English universities in particular to rethink admissions policies that assume any grade of A-level is superior to a borderline Higher. Many A-level students coming to Scottish universities enter directly into the second year, a trend Government critics expect to increase because of tuition fees.
Mr Banks commented, however: "We would not wish automatically to rule in advanced standing for any course. This is really about route planning, helping students to reach their maximum attainment possible in the time-scale that is most appropriate for them. It is not an assault on the four-year degree."
At a seminar on university entry, where the SQA study was launched, there was considerable support from senior academics for Mr Banks's views. Professor David Swinfen, vice-principal of Dundee University, said medical students with Advanced Highers could not be given advanced standing, in which they might be allowed direct entry to the second year, because of the nature of the curriculum.
Liz Lister, director of recruitment and admissions at Heriot-Watt University, feared direct entry into second year could encourage students to specialise too soon. The first year of "orientation and flexibility" would be lost.
But Professor Jim MacCallum, of the school of chemistry at St Andrews University, said: "Most students know exactly what they want to do from day one and have no interest in deferring choices to the end of first year before deciding what to do in their honours year. They would be perfectly happy with a three-year degree."
Professor Alan Roach, dean of the science and technology faculty at Paisley University, said exemption from some modules or partial exemption of a year were the likeliest outcomes, rather than full advanced standing.
* The Scottish Education Minister insisted there would be no rethink on student tuition fees after peers backed by 134 votes to 89 a Tory amendment to the Teaching and Higher Education Bill demanding that students from the rest of the UK taking a four-year degree north of the border should not have to pay for an extra year's tuition.
A second defeat, by 143 to 102 votes, was over plans to replace student maintenance grants completely with loans. Ministers have pledged to overturn both amendments in the Commons.
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