Curriculum differences, financial pressures and the cultural disparities between institutions are the biggest barriers to college leavers entering Scottish universities with full credit for their studies, a new survey shows.
In a TESS survey of Scottish universities, only four of the 17 institutions that participated were able to give specific examples of partnerships they were developing with colleges, despite all of them stressing a commitment to improving articulation routes.
Many universities said that the need to closely align university and college curriculums was a key challenge. Ensuring that students were able to acclimatise to the different environment at university could also be difficult, they said.
Both these issues involved costs, some universities said, which, along with the funding council’s cap on student numbers, made it more difficult to grow the articulation scheme.
But student leaders have said these challenges should not be used as an excuse for not giving more college leavers credit for their studies.
The University of Dundee said that aligning college and university curriculums proved difficult for some courses, particularly those where there were professional bodies governing degrees. “Finding staff time to undertake the work required for curriculum mapping can be challenging without additional funding or resource,” a spokesman said.
A spokesman for Abertay University said: “Establishing and then maintaining successful articulation partnerships is always challenging. However, our experience is that with goodwill, cooperation and a shared vision, these challenges can be overcome.”
Articulation has long been seen as one key way of widening access to higher education, but universities’ record on it has been mixed – and the extent to which college leavers get credit for their qualifications has varied.
Improving articulation routes for students was among the central recommendations of the Scottish government’s Commission on Widening Access, which published its final report earlier this year.
According to its report, in 2013-14 some 43 per cent of learners from the most deprived quintile of communities progressing from college to university entered in the first year with no credit for their qualifications.
Only around 1 per cent of those who progressed with full credit entered one of Scotland’s four ancient institutions.
The report recommends that the Scottish Funding Council should seek more demanding articulation targets from universities that have not traditionally been participants.
Vonnie Sandlan, president of NUS Scotland, said: “It’s simply not good enough to say that curriculum alignment, or lack of, presents a barrier – it’s entirely within the gift of all our universities to fix that.”
She said universities were “right to note that articulating students face very different, and often very difficult, issues in transitioning between college and university”.
Breaking down barriers
However, she stressed that writing off those students or forcing them to duplicate years of study was not the answer. Alastair Sim, the director of Universities Scotland, said: “When it comes to expanding articulation it’s important to understand what the barriers are so we can set about breaking them down.
“There are many well established and highly successful articulation pathways with a really strong curricula fit and excellent support provided for the student moving between college and university. These are difficult, but important, things to get right.”
He stressed that there had been very positive increases in the numbers of students articulating between college and university, with full credit, in recent years and said that this trend could continue.
The SFC said it was very keen to expand college and university partnerships like Forth Valley College and the University of Stirling’s four new skills programmes, because they develop work-ready graduates, as well as improving access to university.
“This year we’ve had over 1,000 college students with associate status at partner universities, which is great news,” a spokesman said.
‘A huge culture shock’
Queen Margaret University (QMU) offers entry to dozens of its degree programmes from a number of Scottish colleges. It also has formalised agreements with the colleges closest to it, which involve guaranteed places and associate student schemes.
Principal Petra Wend said offering these routes was part of the university’s philosophy of giving people a chance. However, she acknowledged that setting up and running these routes was not without its challenges – including additional costs and limited places.
“It only works if colleges and universities work together from the start. What we don’t want is for the students to get here and for it to be a huge culture shock,” she said.
The university uses “champions”, students who have themselves taken the articulation route, to support new students. Articulating students also go through an extensive induction, she explained. QMU has increased pastoral support, and two years ago, it introduced a keycard scheme to monitor attendance in a bid to support struggling students. Leadership on this had to come from the principal, Ms Wend said.