The barriers stopping those from deprived backgrounds from getting into universities are well documented – as are the differences in how society views colleges and universities. Statistics published only weeks ago by the Scottish Funding Council showed that in 2016-17 only 13.8 per cent of Scottish-domiciled full-time, first-degree entrants to Scottish universities were from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland.
While the government has long stressed the need for universities and colleges to work more closely together, the chair of University of the Highlands and Islands has now suggested a more radical solution.
Speaking at last week’s College Development Network Expo in Musselburgh, Garry Coutts, chair of court of the UHI, said: “When it came to the idea of parity of esteem between university and other options, it ain’t close – and we have to be honest about that.
“Our colleges and universities are fantastic, but they are not working well together. There are fantastic examples, but they are the exception, not the rule.”
He added: “I think the answer is to move to completely tertiary institutions.”
‘Line of sight’
The current system was “boxing in” learners, and creating significant duplication and repetition, Coutts said. “
“People should have that clear line of sight all the way to level 12,” he argued, adding that his own institution, which is made up of a partnership of 13 FE colleges and research institutions across the Highlands and islands of Scotland, was already able to offer progression from entry level to level 12.
He said that what was needed was a system with “launch pads”, allowing people to leave at specific points along the way and go into successful careers, but also “docking stations”, allowing them to re-enter.
Coutts would not be drawn on what exactly these institutions could look like, and whether they could spell the end for existing institutions in their current form.
“We already have 3-18 schools, but why are we not removing barriers between HE and FE? Post-16 education is what we do from the day we leave school to the day we die. Tertiary education is the way forward,” he said.
Coutts argued that there were a lot of benefits in the graduate requirement for some professions, “but we have to be aware of the impact that is having on society”. “The biggest determinant still of whether or not someone is going to be a graduate is whether their mum and dad are graduates. And it is a really, really serious problem we have. We have created a chasm in society.”
He said it was also important to remember the pressure that the requirement to go to university was putting on young people.
Articulation has long been hailed as the key to widening access to university, as the proportion of students from the most deprived backgrounds on college HE courses is significantly higher than at universities.
However, students often do not gain full credit for college courses, meaning they have to repeat years of study at university, increasing the total time it takes to achieve a degree and the costs incurred.
Starting from scratch
In December, a report by Scotland’s widening access commissioner, Professor Sir Peter Scott, said that half of HN students who progressed to universities were only admitted to the first year – despite that qualification being equivalent to having completed that year or even second year. “In effect, they have to start from the beginning – and more than three-quarters of articulation is done by six universities,” said Professor Scott.
There are also other challenges around articulation. In March, the government’s Learner Journey: analysis of Scottish education and training provision for 15- to 24-year-olds report showed that the proportion of those who articulated from college and went on to achieve a first-class or upper-second-class honours degree was significantly lower than for those entering university straight after the sixth year of secondary school.
According to the report, just 10.9 per cent of those who articulated graduated with first-class honours, “which is less than any other group”, including school leavers who went straight into the second or third year of university. Articulation was also significantly less common between colleges and Scotland’s ancient universities.
Improved collaboration between schools, colleges and universities was one of the 17 recommendations of the Scottish government’s Learner Journey Review, published last month. This should enable greater flexibility for young people to move from S5 to year one of a degree, S6 to year 2, and from college into years 2 and 3 of university, the government says.
Also speaking at the CDN Expo, FE and HE minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “Colleges are the golden thread that runs through the Scottish Learner Journey Review.” She argued that partnerships with schools and articulation were examples of this. However, she agreed that articulation from college to university with full credit – the process where students move straight into the second or even third year of a university degree following their HNC or HND at college – was not widespread enough and there were “still too many barriers” out there. The minister told the audience that she expected universities to come through on this, but pointed out that there was an option within her annual letter of guidance to the sector “to encourage along” the right action.