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'Scotland's colleges put the country ahead on access to HE'

Scotland is in a better position to develop a truly flexible tertiary education system than any other UK nation, says Peter Scott - but there is much still to be done

scotland access university HE FE

Scotland’s colleges are in the vanguard in delivering fair access to higher education. Unlike many universities where students from the 20-per-cent most deprived areas are still underrepresented, in most colleges they are already over represented.

So colleges have exceeded the government’s target of 20 percent of students from the 20 percent most deprived areas - and well ahead of time. It is down to colleges that Scotland has both the UK’s highest participation rate in higher education overall and the best record on widening access. Universities, of course, are making good progress towards fairer admissions. But most have some way to go.

Read more: Almost half of Scotland's colleges 'very good' for student outcomes

Background: Co-operation between colleges, schools and universities essential, says Scotland's education secretary

More news: Scottish colleges enrol more schoolchildren

Strong and self-confident

The colleges’ achievement deserves to be more widely recognised and celebrated. Often fair access to higher education is confused with fair access to universities - and, in particular, to the ancient universities which have played such a famous role in Scotland’s history but still remain dominated by middle-class students despite their best efforts to reach out to disadvantaged communities.

The colleges are strong and self-confident institutions, further strengthened in recent years by mergers (whatever short-term pain and disruption these mergers caused). They have their own unassailable place in the mainstream of higher education, currently enrolling a third of all students. South of the border, in contrast, England’s further education colleges’ share of higher education is less than 10 percent.

Colleges also play a decisive role in vocational higher education by offering ordinary and higher certificate and diploma courses. I was struck by both the variety of subjects - from hospitality to hairdressing, business studies to mechanical engineering - and the self-confidence of college students when I handed out certificates, diplomas and prizes at the City of Glasgow College. I couldn’t help noticing too the grand new college building, atrium-and-all, towering above the University of Strathclyde down the hill!

The poor relation

There has been frequent criticism in many countries that too much emphasis is placed on academic education and vocational education is the poor relation, whether in schools or higher education. As a result brighter students - and students from more privileged social backgrounds? - are steered towards academic courses. The contrast is always made with Germany where there is a stronger vocational education sector, training the technicians that are at the heart of that country’s powerful manufacturing base. In the UK, Scotland comes closest to that model.

But that very success presents a problem. Colleges are not only providers of higher education in their own right; they also also offer opportunities for HNC/D students to progress to degree courses if they want to. In the educational experts’ jargon this is called "articulation". In a similar way colleges collaborate with schools in partnerships that allow students to mix school and college experiences. This makes colleges pivotal institutions in the whole education system.

Understandably colleges are not always happy to see themselves as feeder institutions for universities. Rightly they insist that the higher education they offer - especially HNC/Ds - are free-standing programmes in their own right, understood and valued by employers. They are not designed to be preparatory courses for degree-level study. They tend to resist the US model where many students in community colleges take two-year associate degrees and then transfer to universities and enter four-year degrees with so-called ‘advanced standing’.

Honourable exceptions

Some universities for their part do not make always make it easy for college students who want to transfer, although some of the ‘post-1992’ universities and universities with roots in technological education like Strathclyde and Heriot-Watt are honourable exceptions. HNDs are two-year higher education courses so logically these students should be admitted to the third year of degree programmes. In practice only a minority is so lucky.

A range of arguments are used to justify restricting the credit transferring students receive, and the standard pattern is for HND students to be admitted to the second year - in effect, ‘losing’ a year, which prolongs their studies and costs them, and the taxpayers, more money. These arguments include that the subject content match is not good enough or that learning styles are different in colleges and universities (routine as opposed to ‘independent’ learning). Some of these arguments deserve to be taken seriously (and addressed); others are specious.

Whoever is to blame and despite efforts to improve the situation by establishing a National Articulation Forum, articulation between colleges and universities is still too "sticky". If Scotland is to develop a truly flexible tertiary education system (and it is in a better position to do so than any other UK nation), this needs to be remedied. It is not just a question of college-University articulation. In the future students will have to be free to switch freely between education provided by institutions, whether colleges or universities, and work-based and community (and increasingly online) learning.

Peter Scott is Scotland's commissioner for fair access

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