A LARGE number of those sitting Highers and Advanced Highers this week are aiming at higher education. The rise in participation rate appears inexorable. Although south of the border the Education Secretary has admitted that the target of 50 per cent participation will not be attained until after the next Parliament because applications have stalled, here the increase continues. Statistics for 1999-2000 show that the percentage of young Scots in higher education went up from 47.2 to 47.6. In other words, doing a degree is no longer an elitist activity, it has become the norm.
Of course, uptake rates vary across the country. They are still too low in poorer areas, and universities as well as the Executive are doing their best to "sell" the opportunities. But tuition fees did not halt the growth. Wile the total of entrants to higher education dipped by 1.6 per cent, the number starting undergraduate courses went up by 0.1 per cent. And the phenomenon, much more pronounced here than in England, of taking higher education courses at an FEcollege continued, with 28 per cent of HE students opting for that route.
Another feature has gone virtually unnoticed. The percentage of students aged under 25 has fallen from 59 in 1995-96 to only 55 in the most recent statistics. Lifelong learning is expanding and the universities have to take heed of the needs of older students, not just in how they organise their classes and assessments but also in the social facilities. For those who are not school-leavers, neither swilling exotic cocktails nor playing student politics holds much attraction.