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Out in the market with Higher Still

A headteacher recently encapsulated for me the nub of the sixth-year problem. Able students with five Highers under their belt embark enthusiastically on, say, CSYS chemistry. But before Christmas - lo and behold - the unconditional offer arrives, and suddenly enthusiasm for the CSYS syllabus melts. Much of it will be retackled at university anyway.

So is the Scottish sixth year set to continue as marking time for able students? This problem was identified by the Howie committee, which incidentally deprecated the immaturity of Scotland's first-year students compared with their European counterparts.

The architects of Higher Still certainly found sixth year posed a somewhat insoluble conundrum. After skirting around it for a couple of years, they seemed content to let the universities make the running when the latter announced that Highers would remain the benchmark.

Sixth year, however, is unlikely to disappear for bright students. Because of the simplest facts of financial life, staying at school will continue to be attractive, perhaps to increasing numbers of already qualified young. Whatever else the Dearing report comes up with shortly, it is widely accepted that the school-leaver of the future may expect to contribute more to the cost of their higher education, not least so that lifelong learning opportunities may also become a reality for other age-groups.

This being the case, the attractions of living more cheaply at home for one more year, and postponing the cutting of the domestic umbilical cord, will become highly apparent. A student loan at age 17 does sound rather daunting.

It is unlikely that a couple of Advanced Highers would allow a student to bypass the first year of a four-year course, though the AH group award sounds promising. But it will be in the interests of universities, which after all want to attract the best, to develop a flexible approach to Advanced Highers and accreditation of prior learning generally.

This might lead to recognition of pre-entry achievements on a new Scotcat-type pointage system, whether Highers, Advanced Highers, the Higher National Diploma or Scottish Vocational Qualifications.

The flexibly minded and entrepreneurial university, post-Dearing, will anyway, with an eye on the punter, want to review its entrance policies in light of growing demand for greater client choice. We already see elements of first-year university courses being franchised out to school sixth-forms by one enterprising HE institution, the same university which appears interested in the three-year honours degree.

The mass student market now enjoying new opportunities, and the increasing proportion of adult and "mature" students arriving at the doors of the universities, will increasingly wish to climb off the learning ladder at varying points, to suit their particular abilities or circumstances.

Perhaps we shall see local development of the American-style modular degree and two-year diploma concepts; and a welcome revaluation of the three-year general degree.

Probably only 10 per cent of the student cohort are potential clients for the traditional four-year degree anyway. For some students, four years' honours will be too leisurely or too expensive. A condensed two-year model may be attractive to some. For others, industrial funding may require distance learning or block sandwich-type arrangements.

In addition, future funding structures (whether individual learning accounts or loans against long-term repayment through income tax) should increasingly allow students to return for years three or four of higher education, at varying points through life.

The planners should stop worrying. The market is flexing itself to shape the future of Scottish higher education. Schools and universities just need to sensitise their antennae.

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