A leg-up for top students

8th October 2010 at 01:00
Scottish Government plans university fast track for Advanced Highers and Scottish Bacc

The Education Secretary wants to see more able students go directly into the second year of their university course, The TESS understands.

But Michael Russell, who believes there is too much of an overlap between sixth year at school and first year at university, has been warned that any such move could create "a two-tier system". His view, however, is that there needs to be more "momentum" at the interface between school and university.

Mr Russell's plan, which will be set out in his green paper on higher education, due to be published in early December, envisages that pupils with Advanced Highers and Scottish Baccalaureates could bypass first year. This will be among a number of options designed to kick-start a debate on how to improve routes from school to university.

The benefits of a fast-track for university entry would be to give Advanced Highers and the Scottish Bacc greater standing in higher education at a time when they are threatened by ever-tightening school budgets.

It would also cut student debt and allow the Government to reduce the universities' teaching grant. Ministers could still argue that the Scottish four-year degree remained intact for other students, a commitment Mr Russell reiterated in a parliamentary debate on higher education last week.

But siren voices are already being heard, claiming that accelerated entry routes could prove to be "a three-year degree by the backdoor". They warn that students moving from further education with Higher National Certificates or Diplomas into second or third year of university have not always prospered, leading to a higher drop-out rate among this group.

At a national conference on vocational education last week, Ray Harris, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges, pointed to the fact that level 7 of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework contained Advanced Highers, the Scottish Bacc, HNCs, the Certificate of Higher Education (effectively the first year of a degree programme) and the SVQ level 3.

"If I am getting my level 7 education in a particular institution, when I move to another type of institution should I not be going up a level?" he told The TESS.

Moves to offer greater flexibility between secondary and tertiary education were "inevitable" and "logical", said Dr Harris. All political parties were now asking how Scotland could operate its education system in the most cost-effective way, he added.

Although Mr Russell would not be drawn this week on his proposals, he has been open in public about the direction of travel. "There are undoubtedly ways in which the learner journey can be made more efficient to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population," he observed in last week's parliamentary debate and then asked: "What opportunities can be created on the back of the Scottish Baccalaureates to allow students to begin their studies in second year?"

The suggestion that Advanced Highers can give direct entry to second year at university is not a new one, but it is still relatively exceptional. Articulation between FE and HE for holders of HNCs and HNDs is easier in post-1992 universities, but many older universities are still resistant.

Aberdeen University's plans to pilot a number of accelerated entry routes from September 2011 could, however, be the shape of things to come elsewhere.

A spokeswoman for the university said: "It is intended that such qualifications will enable students holding good entry qualifications at A-level, Advanced Higher or Scottish Baccalaureate, but not necessarily in the specific subject they wish to study, to complete their honours degree in three years. Such students will enter directly into year two."

Tony Axon, spokesman for UCU Scotland, the higher education union, said there was recognition of the need to have more flexible routes to higher education, but warned of the dangers of creating a two-tier system.

"If people want to go through the college route, as long as it's done for educational reasons and not just financial reasons, that's fine," Dr Axon commented. "But just because you have an Advanced Higher doesn't mean you have the right knowledge to go into the second year of a university degree."

Brian Cooklin, former president of School Leaders Scotland, warned that some schools were struggling to maintain the number of Advanced Highers because of staffing and budget cuts. He suggested it would be easier for schools to offer the Scottish Bacc if they worked more closely with universities and colleges to share the costs.

Liam Burns, NUS Scotland president, said direct entry to second year would suit mature and returning students who wanted to get through university quickly. But some students would still want to do a full four-year degree and would not be mature enough to go straight into second year.

elizabeth.buie@tes.co.uk.

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