The debate on fees can't leave out the sixth-form

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Schools and higher education have common concerns but sometimes find it difficult to work together. The two sectors have the same questions about the implications of the Government's decision to impose student tuition fees and end maintenance grants. They will study the detailed explanations in the booklet from the Student Awards Agency but since the Government has had to amend its policy several times already, they will not be sure that future students and their parents can find all the answers they need. Nor will universities be reassured about the effects on entrants and how to deal with them financially.

The apparent drop of up to 20 per cent in applications for next session will worry universities and colleges since their income depends on undergraduate numbers. They hope that teachers advising pupils will strike a positive note and seek to reassure families unhappy at the notion of finance through debt. It has to be remembered, despite increasingly agitated assurances from the Education Minister about the high percentage of students excused tuition fees because of family income, that the replacement of grant with loan will affect the very groups who will not pay fees but who in the past received help with living costs.

The shared concerns of schools and higher education about student finance ought to extend to other areas such as responses to the Higher Still development programme. Sir Graeme Davies, principal of Glasgow University, said this week in a lecture given to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools and sponsored by The TES Scotland that there must be closer partnership between the sectors and more flexible arrangements for easing the transition from pupil to student.

He even suggested the possibility of university teachers working with gifted senior pupils and school teachers lending their skills to help first-year students get to grips with basic knowledge and competences. The numbers now going on to higher education mean that a minority find the transition from school difficult, and the two sectors should work at that.

But despite examples of close co-operation and the successful access courses offered by most universities, the interests of schools and universities frequently diverge. The fate of the Advanced Higher depends on resolving tensions. That in turn will hang on the outcome of the debate about three-year degrees. Since undergraduate numbers are at the heart of university income, educational concerns, such as enhancing the status of the general degree as the Garrick committee recommended, will not necessarily prevail.

If higher education came down firmly for Advanced Higher as the main entry qualification, schools would have to be able to offer a range of courses. But since the universities do not want to imperil four-year degrees and therefore continue to talk of Higher as the benchmark, neither the purpose of the school sixth year nor the funding of Advanced Higher courses can be clarified. It is little wonder that local authorities are toying with ways of concentrating resources such as on sixth-year colleges. But these could not form a basis for national provision.

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