In recent years, Scottish businesses and employer organisations have repeatedly questioned the work-readiness of those leaving the education system.
So it is no surprise that articulation – the process by which learners complete a higher national (HN) qualification at college before moving straight into the second or third year of a university degree – is seen by many as a magic bullet.
A number of Scottish colleges have long-established partnerships with universities – usually those local to them – that allow students to undertake the vocational, hands-on training that comes with a college education before entering a university degree with full credit for their qualification. This means that they do not have to add to the four years of post-school study that a university degree in Scotland usually requires.
‘Real success story’
Aside from this obvious benefit for students and employers, there are other advantages.
The newly elected SNP government has placed a commitment to closing the attainment gap between young people from deprived backgrounds and their better-off peers at the top of its education agenda. And articulation is seen as a tool to widen access for those who either lack the qualifications to enter university straight after school or are simply more suited to vocational study and/or a college environment.
The government’s Commission on Widening Access identified the expansion of articulation pathways as “a real success story of Scottish higher education and a powerful means of advancing fair access”.
But despite such praise, the growth of the programme has been relatively slow. According to a Scottish Funding Council paper, the number of Scottish domiciled learners articulating from college to degree level courses with advanced standing rose from 2,833 in 2009-10 to 3,788 in 2013-14, while the total number of HN entrants increased from 6,345 to 7,671 in the same period (see box, above).
The paper also states that it expects the sector to fall short of the SFC’s original target of 4,500 students with advanced standing for 2016-17.
There are a number of reasons for this – including some that are very difficult to quantify, such as students’ preferences for one type of organisation over the other or the fact that some Scottish universities offer few subjects that contain a straightforward, vocational dimension.
Last week, TESS revealed the results of a survey of universities, showing that two of the main challenges stacked against the expansion of articulation routes were the need to align the curricula of universities and colleges, and the cultural disparity between institutions (“Break down barriers for FE students going to university”, Insight, 13 May).
Respondents said that students needed to be prepared for the different ways of learning required at university, and colleges needed to ensure that course curricula didn’t put students coming straight into the second or third year of university at a disadvantage compared with their peers.
Meeting the support needs of students also created financial barriers, they added.
Some in the college sector argue that to tackle this problem, a uniform approach to articulation must be developed beyond merely establishing formal routes.
Glasgow Kelvin College principal Alan Sherry, for example, believes that Scotland has done well to set up systems and structures for articulation but now needs to work towards a joint approach to pedagogy common to schools, colleges and universities.
“What we have not done is spend enough time on discussing learning and teaching,” he says. “There are different approaches to teaching in university, and that can be a challenge to students from college, but there are issues there for young people coming from school as well.”
The slow growth of the programme isn’t the only problem. Disparities between different institutions – and types of institution – are also a concern. While all universities responding to the TESS survey have articulation arrangements in place, and most allow third-year access to students with a HND for at least some of their courses, the picture is far from homogeneous.
The responses largely confirm the long-established notion that most articulation activity continues to take place between colleges and Scotland’s post-1992 universities. According to the Commission for Widening Access’ final report, in 2013-14, only about 1 per cent of students from the most deprived fifth of communities who progressed from college to university with full credit entered one of Scotland’s four ancient institutions.
The University of St Andrews – one of the four – was unable to provide details of any routes it offered. But a spokesman says that it does have articulation agreements in place.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the University of Glasgow says that his institution has no direct entry into the third year for former college students, although HND students are offered direct entry into the second year in “a small range of science and engineering subjects”.
Formalised partnerships with a small number of local colleges are a common feature among those universities with the most established and reputable schemes.
Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Aberdeen has formal agreements with North East Scotland College and Dundee and Angus College, which involve offering guaranteed articulation places to students. And it also welcomes applications for entry with advanced standing from students at other colleges for all subject areas (see box, above).
At the University of the West of Scotland, which has the largest number of articulated students, advanced entry is possible into all degree courses.
At Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University (QMU), more than 25 per cent of students gain direct entry into the second or third year of its degree courses. And at Abertay University, that number is even higher, with more than a third of the current student body having come through an articulation route.
Speaking to TESS, both RGU and QMU say that they view formal partnerships as crucial to their success. Not only does this approach allow staff to work closely together to plan the curriculum and facilitate a smooth transition but it also enables the institutions involved to engage with the student cohort early – often while the learners are still at school.
However, these often bilateral agreements also magnify the stark regional differences that already exist. Vonnie Sandlan, president of the NUS Scotland students’ union, says: “We shouldn’t simply rely on formal agreements, and those students deserve to have their qualifications accepted and recognised in their own right.
“Genuine parity of esteem means ensuring that no student is penalised for taking an alternative route through education, or worst of all that route being seen as lesser or not valid and them seeing the possibility of a place at university slip from their reach.
“Still we hear of students with college higher education qualifications being forced to repeat and duplicate years of study at university, or their qualifications simply not being recognised.”
Sandlan argues that every young person should be able to take the route that is right for them and that those routes and those students should be “accepted by every player in the post-16 sector”.
“If we’re going to get widening access right, we need to recognise that schools, colleges and universities all have a role to play,” she adds.
A perfect partnership
Robert Gordon University (RGU) and North East Scotland College (NESCol) have worked together to offer articulation routes to students for more than a decade.
A guaranteed-places scheme operates for a large number of the courses on offer, which involves students completing their HND at NESCol before entering the third year of RGU’s degree programme.
James Dunphy, head of enhancing learning, teaching and access at RGU, says that staff at the operational and executive levels of both institutions – as well as their board members – are committed to the partnership.
Engagement with prospective students is a “joint effort”, he explains, and the guarantee of places is important to this. Constant dialogue between the institutions means that the university is able to plan student numbers long-term with reference to application figures for college courses.
There are differences between the college and the university environment, Dunphy acknowledges. But articulating students often come to RGU with “different but complementary skills” to their peers. For example, they often have “more hands-on experience”, he says.
According to NESCol principal Rob Wallen, 1,500 students have articulated from HNDs at NESCol – and the former Aberdeen College – to the third year of degree programmes at RGU in the past five years. Of these, more than 90 per cent completed the degree award and 95 per cent moved into employment or further study when they graduated.
Wallen stresses that the strong links NESCol has with RGU – and also with the University of Aberdeen – are much broader than just articulation. They include joint curriculum planning, associate student arrangements, collaborative marketing and events to share good practice.
“The three institutions collaborate particularly in developing regional curriculum mapping for all subject areas to help clarify for young people and their families the different learning pathways into different careers and occupations,” Wallen says.