Colleges and universities will have to learn much more about each other if students are going to benefit from the access agenda, a conference heard last week.
The most recent figures show that 34 per cent of all undergraduates in higher education are enrolled in FE colleges rather than universities, and many students who go on to university therefore have Higher National diplomas and certificates (nearly 12 per cent at the last count).
But, according to Richard Fearn, director of the effective learning service at Glasgow Caledonian University, these progression routes are "both limited and unevenly spread". The ancient universities had 3 per cent of entrants with HNCs or HNDs as their highest qualification on entry in 1999-2000, while Glasgow Caledonian had almost 15 per cent this year.
Dr Fearn said colleges and universities had to concentrate on the differences between how FE and HE students are expected to learn. Glasgow Caledonian ran a 15-hour induction programme over five mornings or afternoons during freshers' week, which was attended by 740 students making the transition from FE.
Dr Fearn told the conference on "the hidden curriculum", organised by the Scottish Further Education Unit, that there are a number of "tips for success". Among these:
* Tailor the induction programme to the specific learning environment, working closely with academic tutors.
* Focus on the work the students will undertake in their first few weeks and the type of assessments they will receive.
* Give students tasks they might expect to encounter such as working alone or in groups on short pieces of work.
Tutors at the university are put through their own induction programmes and are encouraged "to embrace a consistent approach to the week in terms of topics", Dr Fearn said.
An anonymous questionnaire given to students found that more than 90 per cent said the programme was useful and they had learnt new skills.
Eric Massie, an adviser at the SFEU who has been analysing student experiences as they move from college to university, comments: "A greater willingness on the part of practitioners in both sectors to observe the learning processes in each other's institutions would enhance the student experience and would go a considerable way to breaking down barriers to progression."
Dr Massie noted that college lecturers working on social inclusion see themselves as "agents of dynamic social change", while university lecturers feel they are subject specialists and researchers.
But HE staff have little or no pedagogic training, Dr Massie notes, and adds: "The consequences of the resulting culture clash for former college students are both dramatic and potentially devastating. From a position of relative comfort, the student is wrong-footed at precisely the point he or she needs to feel adjusted to the new institution."
Walter Humes, professor education at Aberdeen University, told the conference: "The FE sector has quite a lot to teach those of us in HE about ways in which marginalised and disadvantaged groups can be attracted and retained within education.
"They are closer to the communities, have more experience of providing support systems and are perhaps more sensitive to the economic circumstances of many of their clients."
While there were educational barriers, Professor Humes remarked, there were also economic barriers against students moving on to university. He cited the comment of one student in a recent Glasgow University study: "I didn't find the learning curve for learning as hard as the learning curve for money."
Jim Bradley, FE and continuing education co-ordinator at Stirling University, said: "Widening access is not about dumbing down or changing the rules; it's about enabling learners to use, update and upgrade their skills to cope with the next step of their learning.
"This is not about thousands moving on to study HE at college or university; it's about enabling people to make an informed choice about their learning and knowing they will be encouraged and supported to reach their objective."