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Desirable, available and getting better still

This is the 80th year of Scotland's unique Higher National qualifications, and the event was marked by a grand dinner last night (Thursday) in Edinburgh's Signet Library. Neil Munro and Tom Kelly look to their past and future

On their 80th birthday, Higher Nationals (HNCs and HNDs to you and me) are at last getting the top billing among Scottish qualifications they have long deserved.

Anyone who has been to a college graduation will know just how important and valued the Higher National Certificate and Higher National Diploma are for colleges and their students. Many students are receiving academic recognition for the first time in their lives. Some are the first in their extended families to have a higher education qualification of any sort. The buzz and sense of achievement is hugely impressive.

Employers have long used and valued HN awards. The courses are explicitly vocational and their design and content take full account of employer requirement and recognition. While they started out in engineering, HNs have reached out to most sectors and have grown fast in personal services (health, care and leisure) and in broad areas of study such as social and business studies.

The statistics are impressive. The Scottish Qualifications Authority currently certificates around 20,000 individual awards each year (12,500 HNCs and 7,100 HNDs in 2004). This compares with the 20,000 Scots who are awarded first degrees by Scottish universities each year. HNs make a vital contribution to participation in higher education of young Scots and of people from disadvantaged areas.

About 17 per cent of young Scots participate in higher education in colleges (a much higher level than elsewhere in the UK). And 20 per cent of HN students overall come from the most deprived areas of Scotland (roughly double the rate achieved by ancient universities). One oddity is gender difference: 60 per cent of those who gain HNCs are female.

Over the past 10 years, the annual number of HN awards has risen by a quarter. Currently, HE courses in the colleges funded by the Scottish Funding Council account for about 12 per cent of enrolments and about 24 per cent of funded teaching activity.

It is no wonder Scottish ministers have agreed to put up about pound;2 million a year to accelerate and complete the job of modernisation. Coming to you soon (if not already in your specialism) is a streamlined catalogue with better grouping of titles, more shared elements, more up-to-date content and grading of the overall group award (rather than just pass or merit for the individual units). HNs will then be fully fit for purpose for the next decade and beyond.

The report of Jim McGoldrick's widening participation review group for the Scottish Funding Council, Learning for All, shows that more still has to be done to improve levels of participation by people from disadvantaged areas and groups in Scotland, and develop quicker, better paths between the levels of HE.

For a long time, HNC and HND have been awards recognised in their own right. But they are also stepping stones onward to degrees. When - and I think it is when and not if - Scotland fully implements the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF), opportunity to progress from one award or level of higher education to others will be made much easier.

The McGoldrick report shows some progress in this area. About 3,700 - some 10 per cent of entrants - now go direct to year two or three of degree courses in Scottish higher education institutions. That number is less impressive, however, when you realise that, in theory, there are 2,000 separate articulation routes between colleges and HEIs. Improvement requires more than the "further monitoring" recommended in the McGoldrick report.

Scotland has avoided the blind alley of foundation degrees found in England. It is easy to disparage these two-year quasi degree courses.

"Foundation" demeans the level of study. "Degree" overstates the award (a growing problem with the European Union intent on some form of harmonisation for degree standard right across the 23 member countries).

And courses are local and institutional rather than national.

On the positive side, however, employer involvement in design and recognition of the new courses is demanded, though this has always been the case for HNs.

One important thing we do not know about HNs is the upper limit of student demand. Caps on full-time places and on overall volume of college activity constrain the number of places and the range of courses. In the 1990s, expansion of HNs was unleashed by unitising the courses, devolving design and development to colleges, and extending the full package of student support to HNC.

Are we bold enough in this decade to try the same trick of pushing the new boat down the slipway to see how far it can sail under its own momentum?

Something will need to be done about constraints on uptake. The number of full-time places is capped at around 28,000 in total (and has been for many years). Even if more places were funded by the Scottish Executive, students would still face the inevitable burden of debt for their maintenance costs (though, praise be, HN students do not have to contribute to the Scottish graduate endowment).

For part-time students, fee waivers are available for the most disadvantaged but others have to fund their own tuition fees. There is a little help with study expenses but opportunity costs (loss of earning time) continue to be a major deterrent for the low paid.

Of course, we know that ministers will be increasingly concerned about what is affordable. Cost ratios should help the case for more HNs. Funding per place for an HND in social studies in a college is only 58 per cent of the funding received by a university for the same subject. The same number of funded places will yield twice as many opportunities for students, and eventual awards, for HND as honours degrees (and it will be four times as many for HNC).

But there is a danger of growth in HNs - unless there is new money for it - displacing some of the many other kinds and levels of course which Scotland's colleges have to offer. These are just as vital for students, employers and communities. For many, HNs will be a distant goal rather than an immediate prospect.

So if you cannot get to a college graduation this autumn, please put your hands together for an undoubted Scottish success on reaching its 80th birthday. The staff who have put so much effort into designing and now modernising the awards, and the students whose efforts HNCs and HNDs reward, deserve it.

HNs may not yet be "learning for all" but they are available and getting better still right across Scotland.

Tom Kelly is chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges.

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