20,000 happy returns a year

11th November 2005 at 00:00
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

Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas, which are of degree-equivalent status, are what give Scotland the edge in the number of under-21s who are in higher education, allowing us to claim that half the age group are in what is often wrongly referred to as "university", Neil Munro writes.

In fact, according to the latest figures for 2003-04, only 31 per cent of under-21s have a full-time university place; another 15.7 per cent are in FE colleges on higher education courses, mostly HNCs and HNDs (another 2.2 per cent are in HE institutions elsewhere in the UK).

The very first awards, offered in 1925 by the Royal Technical College in Glasgow (now Strathclyde University), were HNCs in mechanical engineering and chemistry. Now, with very enthusiastic backing from employers, they attract more than 32,000 new candidates every year who take around 480 HNC and HND courses in 46 subject areas.

While degrees tend to hog the headlines, the number of students emerging with HN awards is almost exactly the same as those awarded first degrees - around 20,000 each year. Anton Colella, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which issues HN awards, has described them as "one of the unsung successes of Scottish education".

Figures from Glasgow Caledonian University's centre for research in lifelong learning show that HNs are already adept at delivering the Scottish Executive's agenda: compared to degree courses, they attract older people and more students from deprived areas, while also being more flexible.

Ministers have been treading a careful path, urging colleges and universities to collaborate so that more students with HN qualifications can enter the second or third years of degree courses - while at the same time stressing the importance of HN awards in their own right and not just as stepping stones to greater things.

This is not a straightforward process, however. Jim Gallacher, professor of lifelong learning at Glasgow Caledonian University, has pointed to three main problems facing students transferring from HN to degree courses: coming to terms with different curricula, making adjustments from college cultures to the ethos of universities and adapting to university teaching and assessment.

But the SQA and colleges have given HNs a makeover to streamline the number of programmes, which colleges had been developing alongside the SQA, and to dovetail them more with what both universities and employers say they need.

As for the next 80 years, Mr Colella believes HNs represent a more "flexible and dynamic product". The next step, having established their credentials at home, is to promote their kudos abroad.

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