Pupils who sit their Highers in 12 months are likely to be given preference by universities over those who take 18 or 24 months, their leaders have warned.
Universities Scotland says there are fears that pupils who take two years to complete a Higher may not cope with the first year of university. In its response to the Government's consultation on the "next generation" of exams, it reveals that some of its members are concerned that moves to make exam arrangements more flexible could "compromise" the Higher as the "gold standard" for exams.
"It is vital that universities can distinguish between those who achieve a strong grade in one year and those who take longer," it states. "There is a likelihood that this proposal will disadvantage some of the most able candidates. When this decision is to be taken on an individual, not cohort or group basis, the pressure to either go early or late could be to the detriment of a student's performance."
Universities Scotland expresses concern over the proposal to leave the ultimate decision on whether to offer Highers at 12, 18 or 24 months to individual schools and local authorities.
"To assess applications, we require comparability of education and would hope for uniformity and consistency from all schools," it says.
"There is a degree of concern that the proposed variable and extended study periods endorse an approach to study and assessment that may result in producing a workforce less prepared and adaptive to meet the challenges of modern employment, and a student population less well-prepared and able to cope with the academic demands of higher education.
"Some of our members take the view that qualifications taken over an extended period of time may not adequately prepare students for the rigour of their first year at university."
Universities Scotland also questions whether schools which traditionally send very few pupils to university would be able to afford the level of individualised teaching recommended by the Government. Small rural schools would also struggle to provide a range of subjects. These factors could be detrimental to widening access to higher education, it argues.
Universities Scotland has emerged as one of the few educational organisations to favour the introduction of graded units in the qualification that replaces Standard grade and Intermediate 1 and 2, believing that this would provide universities with a clear pattern of achievement in a range of qualifications.
Scotland's largest authority wants the Government to publicise the new qualifications along the lines of its recent campaign encouraging teenage girls to take up the HPV vaccination against cervical cancer.
Glasgow City Council consulted 477 teachers, principal teachers and senior managers in secondary schools.
Key points made by Glasgow include:
- Retention of the safety net and dual presentation element currently present in Standard grade to "ensure our new system does not return us to young people 'failing' their examinations".
- Schools should retain the flexibility to present pupils for exams in S3;
- A general science exam should be retained alongside discrete sciences;
- Two-thirds of consultees favoured the grading of units to track progress and motivating pupils; others felt grading ran counter to the principles of Assessment is for Learning;
- Just over half of consultees opposed the introduction of literacy and numeracy awards; they feared that employers would use it as a very narrow recruitment strategy that might disadvantage vulnerable youngsters; if some were successful in literacy and numeracy tests in S3, they might go through a substantial percentage of their school career without any further development of these skills;
- The option to bypass S4 qualifications and move straight to Higher was backed; some favoured the creation of a "robust two-year Higher course" that could not be completed in one year.