Tertiary comment - The cuts generation will need more creative routes to university

7th January 2011 at 00:00

When I left Glasgow University halfway through my second year in 1992, I thought it would be easy to return to education. In fact, it took me 13 years and, much to their great surprise, my parents found me moving back into their home at the age of 31 so I could afford to return to full- time undergraduate education.

In my twenties, I was either ineligible to access student financial support or didn't know how to access it and had no guidance on how to get back into university. As a mature student in my thirties, once I did take the leap, I thought it was vital that I get a degree as quickly as possible in order to enter the job market and build a pension.

But I had already been to university and dropped out: who was to say that I wouldn't do that again? The stigma of already being a university drop- out, of having to move back in with my parents, of being a mature student - these were all things that made me question myself. I needed a degree to get a decent job but I just wasn't sure university was for me.

It was then that I discovered Aberdeen College and an advertising and public relations with marketing course which followed on beautifully from my work over the previous 10 years. If I had known about recognition of prior learning then, I probably would have lobbied the college quite hard to put me into my second year.

What was even more attractive about college to me though was that, rather than just being a suitable course, if at any time I wanted to leave because of a change in circumstances in my life, I would be leaving with a qualification in my hand, an HNC after first year or an HND after second, and not with the devastating tag of "drop-out".

The traditional route isn't the best one for all students. There can be immense pressure for secondary school pupils only to apply to universities for their next step into tertiary education, but what if that's not the best route for them?

Scotland starts from a disadvantage in this area in some respects. We have lower rates of student support than in the rest of the UK. NUS Scotland's Still in the Red research found that more than a third of students had considered dropping out, and 89 per cent of those were because they didn't have enough money to get by.

At the same time, the statistics show that the number of state school pupils and students from the lowest socio-economic groups at university are lower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

This time of huge threat for widening access, as a result of the economic downturn and public spending cuts, can also be a time of great opportunity: being forced to save money could mean a more efficient and fairer way to spend money and I would like to outline a few suggestions.

First, while around 3,000 students in Scotland articulate into universities each year, there is still room for the articulation model to grow and progress. While moving away from home is a big part of being a student, those very same articulation agreements which have done so much to widen access are limiting students to only a set number of universities, more often than not within the locality of the college.

NUS Scotland calls on universities and colleges, and their umbrella bodies, to do more to ensure the standard of curriculum content of HNCs and HNDs is consistent and of a high enough quality to ensure that students holding those awards can articulate into the appropriate year of their linked course, irrespective of the university.

Second, we must make sure there is flexibility to meet student needs. Apart from today's articulation routes, it is perfectly feasible that we may see future students in Scotland doing four-year degree courses in as many as four different institutions; in these cases, it will be even more vital for students that standards are consistent.

The learner journey will be key to how students engage with their education in the future, either being able to jump on and jump off again or switching from full-time to part-time, campus based to distance learner and back again.

Third, we must be flexible in terms of the speed of the learner journey. Maybe students should be able to complete module credits as and when they want to. Some may not want to have four months off in the summer; indeed, non-traditional students may find it more attractive not to put aside four years to achieve their honours degree.

Fourth, a glaring and obvious injustice is repeat years of study. The reality of articulation means that students can spend up to seven years in education to get their honours. During my time in Aberdeen, one student had to enrol into the first year of a marketing degree even though he had achieved two years of merits on his marketing courses. In these straitened times, why should we put more pressure on the public purse by making students repeat?

Finally, although students articulating onto the relevant course at the university of their choice is the ideal, there are advantages for them living locally - not least financial ones. Even if it is the student's home town, however, it can be stressful for a new student entering into second or third year in the company of continuing university students who already know their way around.

I would encourage institutions to work in partnership with their students' associations to set up "buddying" schemes so that the inside knowledge, culture and attitudes of the university community can be passed on to new students.

We must go farther than we have before to win the battle to improve widening access, participation and retention rates, because an educated workforce is Scotland's future.

Jennifer Cadiz is depute president of NUS Scotland. This is an edited extract from an address to last month's conference, `From College to University', organised by `Holyrood' magazine.

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