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Colleges open doors to a degree

One in five Open University students in Scotland has previously been on a higher national certificate or diploma course, underlining once again the contribution these courses make to Scotland's 50 per cent student participation in HE - a UK record.

These HN students come largely from FE colleges and, according to a new study, represent 1,000 additional students for the OU each year. They are "a significant proportion of all students involved in part-time undergraduate education in Scotland".

The contribution of FE to the Government's HE targets is slowly being recognised elsewhere. Lord Watson, the former culture minister, admitted at the parliamentary inquiry into top-up university tuition fees last week that he had not appreciated the fact that 60 per cent of those who take up HE courses for the first time in Scotland do so in an FE college.

The latest study of 500 OU students by the university and Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh found, not unexpectedly, that the main motivation for HN studies is related to careers.

In a report on the findings, Katla Helgason of the OU and Pete Cannell of QMUC, state: "Just over a half of the students told us that they would have been interested in degree study at the end of their HNCD, but for many the need to earn takes precedence."

The authors also say that there is an information job to be done. "The survey revealed a lack of awareness of options for further study. On completion of their HN award, just less than half of the students were aware that combining work and part-time study was possible.

"Just under a third said they had received advice and support on further study during their HN course. Sometimes this seems to have been very specific to the immediate next step in employment or study."

The researchers, reporting in the latest issue of the FE journal Broadcast, carried out 50 in-depth interviews with students and found that only one was given the option of moving on to a degree - but went directly into a job. "I wanted the money," he said.

Despite some criticism that the progression from HN to degree studies can be hampered by poor links between the two, the report says the students had "an extremely positive experience" in moving from one to the other.

The biggest hurdle is time management as students try to juggle work, study and domestic commitments. An HN background helps, particularly if students have experience of the balancing act through having undertaken a higher national certificate course part-time.

The Scottish Executive has made it clear that closer links between FE and HE, including better articulated courses which allow progress from diploma to degree, are a key feature of its lifelong learning policies. The HE funding council announced in March it was allocating pound;2 million to develop those links.

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