A broader look at higher education

31st October 2014 at 00:00
Admissions offices urged to give `wider experience' more clout

Universities could be persuaded to radically alter admissions procedures so that gap years, vocational studies and volunteering become as valuable as Highers, according to the man who headed a crucial review of higher education finance.

Sir Andrew Cubie, speaking to TESS in his capacity as chair of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) partnership, said the body was already bringing together traditional school qualifications and "wider achievement".

Pupils have long been encouraged to include supporting statements about extracurricular achievements when applying to university, but Sir Andrew said he would "absolutely" like to see those accomplishments become as integral to applications as exam results within the next 10 years.

Volunteering, Scouting and Guiding, and productive gap years - "not bumming around on a beach for a year" - could all be considered, Sir Andrew added, saying he was impressed by the rich experiences of volunteers at this summer's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Sir Andrew said he envisioned something akin to a credit card, which would allow young people to summon evidence of all their formal and informal learning in a matter of seconds.

But he also acknowledged that although there was widespread buy-in to the SCQF, the universities' stance would be crucial: if they continued to prioritise Highers above all other learning when selecting students, broader approaches to education at school level would be less meaningful.

Sir Andrew - who led the Cubie report, which reviewed university tuition fees in 1999 - said the support of universities and their admissions officers was "absolutely fundamental" in changing attitudes to qualifications.

Some newer institutions with strong links to further education colleges, such as the University of the West of Scotland and Edinburgh Napier University, were already very receptive to broader definitions of learning, he said.

Scotland was at the vanguard in removing divisions between different types of learning, he said, and was regarded as "a really interesting case study by 140-odd countries [with their own qualifications frameworks] around the world".

Sir Andrew - who said his views on education had been shaped by failing the 11-plus in the 1950s - hoped that the SCQF would encourage young people to follow ambitions that went beyond traditional qualifications and "a piece of parchment from a school", but said there was a "huge task ahead".

SCQF communications officer Samantha Houten Feeley said that a "big step forward" had already been made by including Modern Apprenticeships in the framework. Germany, where apprenticeships have long been held in high esteem, provided a powerful example for Scotland, she said.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said that higher education institutions had been "very closely involved" in shaping the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence, with its greater focus on wider learning such as volunteering, work experience and leadership.

"We'd encourage applicants to get as broad a range of experiences while at school as possible as this will contribute to their maturity and their ability to handle the independence that university study requires," he said.

"However, academic qualifications remain the primary requirement for entry to degree-level programmes and we need to be clear to pupils.that minimum entry requirements for university remain in place, and they continue to be expressed in terms of Highers."

Academic qualifications remained "the most reliable way for the applicant and the university to be sure an individual is up to the demands of the course", Mr Sim said.

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