Willis Pickard reports from Glasgow on the climate for the new credit and qualifications framework
THE Scottish Qualifications Authority has been forced to defend the Higher Still programme against claims by a further education college principal that it would discriminate against students on access programmes.
Janet Lowe, principal of Lauder College in Dunfermline, told the Quality Assurance Agency's conference in Glasgow on the new credit and qualifications framework that it was a "shame" the success of Scottish Wider Access Programmes would be undermined.
Access students would not have the portfolio of Higher Still qualifications for higher education which other students would accumulate, Mrs Lowe warned. But Ron Tuck, chief executive of the SQA, denied there was a problem.
Access students would not appear to be "second-class citizens", Mr Tuck said, and there had already been a dialogue with access consortia. SWAP arrangements would not change. The SQA recognised that not all entrants to higher education would come through the Higher Still route.
Mrs Lowe also told representatives of higher and further education that students taking higher national certificates and diplomas often encountered problems in using them as credits towards a university degree. Some were forced to repeat a year's study.
Half of all HNC and HND students do not go on to degrees, though many more could if universities showed greater sensitivity to these entry routes.
The conference theme was the emerging Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, which is intended to bring together school, work-based and further and higher education qualifications as part of the Government's aim of increasing participation in post-school education and boosting lifelong learning.
But Mrs Lowe said that, admirable though the framework's aims were, increased understanding of and access to qualifications were not the same as lifelong learning. The new framework had to become "visible, valued and understood" if it was to increase access.
Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, accepted that lifelong learning was regarded like "motherhood and apple pie", but it had now reached the stage where the good intentions were being turned into action. The Government's paper last autumn, Opportunity Scotland, had set out the visions of a society where every citizen had the right to access learning at any stage of life, and that presented an agenda for the new credit and qualifications framework.
Mrs Liddell said that qualifications gained through the Scottish University for Industry should be part of the framework and the credits gained could be used to obtain further qualifications either through the university or by other means.
Further education would be central to delivering the lifelong learning agenda because "it has already shown that it is very much a 'can do' and 'is doing' sector which shares the Government priorities on access". The challenge to colleges was to ensure that all reached the standards of the best.
Mrs Liddell said that much of the pound;214 million extra for FE over the next three years would support at least 40,000 extra students and the focus should be on those who might not have considered education and training. "We need to find out why and then address those reasons by ensuring that suitable and flexible opportunities are opened up."
Developing the framework was complex since it embraced everything from Scottish Vocational Qualifications to postgraduate degrees. It had to obtain the support of bodies that accredited or provided the wide range of qualifications. "They must feel they have ownership," Mrs Liddell said. Spreading the message would not be easy but it was vital.
Norman Sharp, head of the Quality Assurance Agency in Scotland, said that by developing the framework Scotland was putting itself ahead of anywhere in the United Kingdom. It represented a development from the six-year-old Scotcat credit and transfer arrangements, which were basically aimed at encouraging credit accumulation by students.
"Scotcat was never designed to support wandering scholars throughout Europe," Mr Sharp said. The new framework must not be bureaucratic but transparent and usable.
John Sizer, chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, said that as well as providing at least pound;1 million a year for five years to increase access to higher education, the council would be inviting bids for four years' funding of universities pledged to forge stronger links with schools, further education and their communities.
The increase in HE students planned for early next century would have to be concentrated on those from a wider range of backgrounds, Mr Sizer said.
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