The debate on how to expand learning opportunities in Scotland will step up a gear in the months ahead. Consultation on how to improve the potential for students with Higher National qualifications to fit into degree courses comes to an end in a fortnight, on Burns Night.
A discussion paper by the Scottish Funding Council, Articulation for All?, which has been circulating since November, implies there is considerable scope for improvement. It points out that articulation, which is defined as entry into the second or third year of a degree course by students with a Higher National diploma or certificate, accounts for just 7 per cent of those taking their first degree.
The paper adds that "significant volumes of articulation" are limited to a small number of higher education institutions: Glasgow Caledonian and Napier universities account for the lion's share, and five take nearly 90 per cent of those on the articulated route.
By contrast, the more ancient universities - Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews - take only 1.8 per cent of HNCD students going into the second or third year of a degree.
The number of such students has actually declined slightly, from 2,823 in 2003-04 to 2,508 in 2005-06. The funding council acknowledges there are "powerful barriers to spreading articulation beyond the routes that are already well used". It suggests some of these are to do with a mis-match between courses, and a lack of a "business case" for articulation in the case of universities that can easily fill places by other means.
The council paper believes that "market pressures on universities are unlikely to change this picture".
Nonetheless, the funding council says it remains committed to improving transitions between college and university, particularly in bringing about a closer fit between HN qualifications and degrees. The most likely way it will seek to do so is through funding articulation activity.
The council will have its work cut out. It has uncovered strongly-held views by university staff that "the experience offered by spending two years at a college, followed by perhaps only one year at university, is not equivalent to the type of experience offered by three or four years at a university".
The paper also recognises that "most people who undertake HNCD study do so because they want an HNCD, not because they want a degree".