University staff remain sceptical about the plethora of qualifications with which prospective students confront them, says Neil Munro. The links between further and higher education in Scotland are many and wondrous. But a report from the Higher Education Quality Council suggests that HE staff still need a lot of convincing about the Heinz-like varieties of qualifications with which they are now confronted.
The report, based on visits to four HE institutions and five colleges, says that some HE staff continue to doubt whether the modularised advanced qualifications of the Scottish Vocational Education Council (Scotvec), which is the sole awarding and accrediting body north of the border, provide "a secure foundation in themselves for subsequent work in HE".
Norman Sharp, the HEQC officer in Scotland who compiled the report, agrees that perception is part of the problem and that it was sometimes difficult "to distinguish fact from fiction". The absence of grading in Scotvec awards, the extent of in-course assessment and the number of times a student can repeat a specific assessment in order to be judged competent are all anxieties for HE staff in gauging the worth of students who do not come to university bearing the traditional clutch of Highers.
But, as Dennis Gunning, Scotvec's assistant director, points out, the council's higher national certificate and diploma awards are graded into a merit or a pass, although these are at the level of each unit - as it prefers to call modules - and do not aggregate into a "merit" HNCD. Students' records of achievement, however, will indicate how the overall performance adds up.
The HEQC and Scotvec are now attempting to set the record straight by joining forces to run workshops aimed at HE admissions tutors. One result will be the production of a support pack to make them more aware of the portfolio of qualifications students entering HE now present. The HEQC report implies that this move does not come a moment too soon, pointing to "a potential problem in relation to admissions where it was felt that HE staff sometimes made more rigorous demands for curriculum coverage and depth than was the case for conventional students with Scottish Highers" The "conventional student", of course, is a thing of the past. There are now more pupils taking Scotvec modules in the upper secondary than are sitting Highers and the Government's wider access programme has attracted more adults into universities. "So it is now the norm for students to arrive at university with a much wider portfolio of qualifications than in the past," says Scotvec's Dr Gunning.
The major expansion in HNCDs over the past 10 years is a clear indication of and contributor to the gradual blurring of the edges between FE and HE. The uptake has increased by some 150 per cent from 16,000 in the mid-Eighties to over 50,000 this session. "I've no doubt at all that the greater accessibility which a modular system provides is a significant factor," Dr Gunning states, and the development of new courses in everything from care to waste management is now much easier in Scotland. But the wider access programme, the raised awareness of alternatives to degree courses, and the Scotcat (Scottish Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme), which allows HNCDs to count towards degrees have also helped to cement links.
FE is clearly a fertile recruiting ground for HE, not least because the first two years of degree teaching can be done more cheaply in the colleges.
But the Scottish Office Education Department, while happy to countenance some collaboration, has called a halt to "academic drift" in the colleges. They have been told to stick to their "vocational mission" and not to take on any more full-time advanced students at HNC level and above. They will be allowed to dabble in part-time HE courses but this is not seen as a growth market given the number of other players such as the Open University.
Scottish colleges have therefore been set on an intensely competitive path, as they are forced to recruit in a restricted market just when they are beginning to move away from their historical basis of funding .
"The colleges will have to go back to the drawing board and recast their development plans," according to John Sellars, chief executive of the FE Employers' Association.
He foresees mergers or formal links with universities. Eight colleges have already entered agreements which gives them affiliate or associate status with Glasgow Caledonian and Paisley universities.
Although Mr Sellars looks forward to a "Californian model", where all community colleges in a locality are plugged in to a university, the SOED is wary. It is proposing that institutional links across the divide should require the approval of the Secretary of State, in case further education gets lost in the partnerships.