Universities are coming under increasing political pressure to give greater weight to the new Scottish Baccalaureates in science and languages and to become more flexible in their approach to Highers as entry qualifications.
Michael Russell told a modern languages conference last week that higher education needed to change its approach to baccs. He also chided universities for insisting that applicants for some highly-competitive courses should take all their Highers in one sitting.
"Curriculum for Excellence will change the way qualifications take place and universities need to change the way they view that," he told a national conference for headteachers and senior managers, organised by the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.
"I don't think we have yet understood fully what the purpose of S6 is," he said. "The bacc has begun to suggest there is a way in which S6 becomes not the bridge, but the start of higher education. Given the pressure we are under as a society, we need to look at the organisation of higher education as a con- tinuum of the education journey."
His challenge to HE was, he said, to decide how the baccs fed into universities. Should they, for instance, be a substitute for first year?
The Government's dialogue with the HE sector on how it could support the bacc was going very well, Mr Russell told The TESS, but the bacc needed to be seen as "a route that takes you further".
Universities were getting better at realising that, but, said Mr Russell: "We are a small country and we need to do it more quickly."
He referred to the Glasgow University evaluation of Kirkcudbright Academy's flexible curriculum programme (TESS, May 21), which found that pupils who had achieved six As at Higher over two years, rather than one, had then encountered difficulties when applying for high-tariff university courses.
"Universities have to be much more flexible," Mr Russell went on. "Curriculum for Excellence will present different types of qualifications. We need to ensure this happens sooner rather than later."
The Universities Council of Modern Languages Scotland (UCMLS) last month issued a statement welcoming the Scottish languages bacc, describing it as "a highly important development in the recognition and promotion of language and intercultural skills".
Andrew Ginger, UCMLS chair, said there was now sector-wide agreement on the value of the Baccalaureate. Scottish universities' modern languages departments were offering schools a variety of support for pupils doing the inter-disciplinary project, viewed as the most significant innovation of the new qualification. They were offering mentoring, access to libraries, online research repositories and workshops on research methods, he said.
However, the UCMLS's statement of support is unlikely to change the situation that, until the qualification is available to all pupils, it is doubtful that university admissions officers will give priority to bacc holders over others.
Mr Russell also said he would be "very sympathetic" to any finding by the Donaldson review of initial teacher education that made modern languages an intrinsic part of primary teacher training.
At the same conference, Wolfgang Mossinger, the German Consul General and a former teacher, said Scotland needed political leadership on modern language teaching, particularly at primary level.
Herr Mossinger told the conference: "I am constantly confronted with the argument that learning German is not worthwhile because we speak English so well. But there are highly-qualified Scots sitting in recruitment interviews alongside highly-qualified French people, Germans and Spaniards and they will all be fluent in English as a second language and maybe have a third language as well."
In a call for more central direction, he "questioned the wisdom of leaving this problem to be tackled by 32 councils, 32 directors of education and hundreds of headteachers".