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Degree courses 'stream' college entrants

Higher National students entering universities are still at a disadvantage when being considered for places in the key disciplines, a study to be published later this year will reveal.

Mike Osborne of the Institute of Lifelong Learning at Stirling University will show that students entering university from further education colleges are rarely to be found in the most competitive subjects such as medicine and dentistry.

Professor Osborne's study is also expected to confirm that the vast majority of FE students with a Higher National diploma or certificate enrol in the new higher education institutions; only one in 12 enters the traditional universities.

Writing in the latest "Education and Skills Review" of Holyrood magazine, John Field, professor of lifelong learning at Stirling University, points out that this reinforces disadvantage for HN students moving on to university through "articulation" routes, because they tend to be in universities with the lowest success rates for students achieving a degree or other award.

"In all the five HEIs where more than 90 per cent of full-time students continued after their first year of study, articulation students in the last two years have formed less than 1 per cent of the total intake," Professor Field said.

He also notes that completion rates in FE colleges are highly variable, and on average much lower than those for HE institutions, which also hits HN students. His calculation is that well under half of those enrolling on HNC and HND courses actually achieve the award.

The overall result is that these problems "have a significant impact on both equality and efficiency. What they mean is that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are effectively streamed into a learning career that carries heavy risks."

The risks are that such students are much less likely than others to emerge with a qualification, any qualification will be from universities and courses where the chances of dropping out are highest, and HN students will attract a greater salary than some but lower than those with a degree.

Professor Field calls for more research on participation in higher education so firmer conclusions can be drawn. But he implies that the answer may not lie in the hands of HE. "Much research on access to higher education suggests that sustained change will only come about through step changes in the quality of schooling, particularly for the least advantaged," he said.

Despite the relative lack of interest in these students by the ancient universities, there are signs of movement. Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow universities have each made appointments in recent months to boost the numbers of students progressing from college to university.

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