Still stuck in a rut

18th April 2003 at 01:00
THERE is little doubt that there is something far wrong with a higher education system that seems so stubbornly to disadvantage those who are already disadvantaged. The latest research (page one) is disturbing. Having followed cohorts of young people across Britain born in 1946, 1958 and 1970, the study found that, despite five decades of reform, the impact of class on life chances was more, not less, marked. The researchers do not extrapolate from their findings that educational efforts to haul young people out of poverty should be jettisoned; they merely pose the question as to why reform should have failed to open up that route to more.

Some cautious notes have to be struck. This study focuses on graduates, not those with degree-equivalent qualifications such as higher national certificates and diplomas. It is these that have allowed Scotland to achieve the target of 50 per cent of school-leavers entering higher education (compared with 32 per cent in England). That means the study is about the universities not further education colleges - without whose HE provision, targeted more strongly on disadvantaged communities, the 50 per cent target would not have been reached.

This begs the question: why 50 per cent? This week's Platform authors suggest, with some justification, that the academically successful (and this, of course, includes teachers as well as policy-makers) place a disproportionate premium on academic success. Why wouldn't they? But an emphasis on the superiority of academic prowess will not do much for the feel-good factor among the 50 per cent who are not in higher education.

No doubt this is what has led to all the political parties now offering a vocational route to success. A smile must be playing on the face of Professor John Howie. His committee's proposals in 1992 for academic ScotBac and vocational ScotCert courses, aborted in favour of Higher Still, might be what the politicians are now looking for. Perhaps they will need different qualifications authorities: shall we call them the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council?

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