COLLEGE leaders have hit out at university attitudes to "non-traditional" students in the week that the Scottish Executive gave the impression that the only major barrier to widening access was financial.
Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said that while they supported the re-introduction of bursaries to alleviate hardship among university students, he was concerned at reports the Executive was intending to pay a cash bonus direct to universities to defray the costs of retaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This would diminish the political embarrassment caused by drop-out rates.
Mr Kelly said: "The barriers towards widening access and participation are not just financial but a reflection of the refusal by the traditional universities in particular to recognise non-standard qualifications, such as higher national diplomas and certificates. They have simply not adjusted to the new realities.
"Although many universities are doing excellent work in this area and support wider access, the message is not getting through to their faculties who actually do the selection." The ASC had evidence of one department at Edinburgh University which said it would only consider a student with a higher national qualification if he took a Higher ar an A-level.
"That is a real barrier to widening access," Mr Kelly said. "It is quite right that universities want to maintain high standards, but have they looked at the evidence? The relationship between good scores as determined by the admissions service and good degrees is not as close as one might imagine.
"On the other hand, universities which do recruit higher national students say there is good progression and completion rates, although I acknowledge there can be bridging problems between HN courses and degrees."
The ASC believes that the best way to widen access is by introducing students who may lack confidence and self-esteem to learning throug the colleges. Nearly 40 per cent of people entering higher education for the first time do so in an FE college.
"Colleges are accessible, they are student-friendly and they have bite-size learning programmes," Mr Kelly said. "People have got to recognise that this is no longer an incidental route into HE but a major one."
A spokesman for Wendy Alexander, the lifelong learning minister who is responsible for colleges and universities, said reports that universities would be given pound;750 from next October for each underprivileged student were "purely speculative" and that the figure of 12,000 alleged student beneficiaries was inaccurate.
The Government has, however, earmarked pound;18 million for wider access to universities over the next three years, out of the extra pound;88m allocated to the HE funding council in September. Of this, pound;5m is to increase the number of additional student places from 2,000 to 2,800 by 2003-04, while pound;13m will go to universities for "access initiatives" to ensure these students stay on and complete their courses.
Ms Alexander's spokesman said it would be up to the HE funding council to devise a scheme, but decisions would first have to be taken about which students would be eligible for the additional support and then work out what the cost would be per student.
The idea is that universities would be funded to run extra classes, special tutorial help and induction sessions in the critical early stages of courses.
The Tories immediately denounced the plan as an "academic bribe". Brian Monteith, their education spokesman, feared it would lead to the displacement of other students. But Ms Alexander insists the effort is being directed at retention, not recruitment.
These measures are in addition to what has become a patchwork of changes to student finance. They include increased income thresholds for students' parental contributions, reductions in loan entitlement for students from the highest-earning households, new means-tested bursaries of up to pound;2,000 to ease hardship among young students, and special bursaries for 30,000 mature students.