THE Lifelong Learning Minister gave the strongest hint yet that the Executive expects colleges and universities to step up collaboration. Iain Gray said he wanted to see much more of the so-called "two plus two" approach to progression for students.
This means recognition of Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas as preparation for degree courses. A number of institutions accept HNC students into second-year degree courses and HND students into university third years - but not enough, Mr Gray said.
He added that this was not an attempt to downgrade HN programmes which are valuable in themselves, but a reflection of the fact that they are also a good progression route for many students. The figures issued last week showing a rise in the number of higher education students in Scotland aged under 21, from 47 per cent in 1999-00 to 50 per cent in 2000-01, were largely achieved by HN qualifications - which are taken by a quarter of all HE students.
All Higher National programmes are currently being reviewed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, after a considerable delay. Colleges have been told this could take seven years to complete, but David Fraser, the SQA's chief executive, assured the conference he was keen to speed up the process.
Mr Gray's remarks were seen as among the most significant in his speech. But he acknowledged the challenges involved, among which (although he did not say so) is that universities have yet to be convinced of the merits of the case. Many prefer to have students for the full time of a course - not least because that brings in more income.
The newer universities - such as Glasgow Caledonian, Napier and Paisley - tend to have closer links with colleges, although these are mostly "articulation agreements". As one leading FE figure put it, that tends in practice to mean that "everyone agrees to be nice to each other". At the very most, universities undertake to give priority in admission interviews to students from colleges with which they have agreements.
This is very far from the full "advanced standing" of HN programmes urged by Mr Gray, which guarantees entry to the second and third years of equivalent degree courses. Glasgow College of Building and Printing has one of the largest such arrangements, covering 14 courses that bestow automatic acceptance by Glasgow Caledonian University. The college also has an "understanding" with Strathclyde University for its architecture students.
The Glasgow Colleges' Group, representing 10 city colleges, has articulation agreements with the four west of Scotland universities - Glasgow, Strathclyde, Glasgow Caledonian and Paisley. But advanced standing for HNCs and HNDs covers just a few courses.
Tom Wilson, principal of Glasgow College of Building and Printing, says the process is not straight-forward. Glasgow Caledonian University, for example, requires 16 credits for HND entry into the third year of a relevant discipline.
The links will only work, Professor Wilson says, if HN programmes and degrees are designed and updated together. "Otherwise they end up being misaligned."
Others point out that degree courses tend to accept HN students in the newer disciplines such as sociology, graphics and multimedia. As one put it: "You can only say that advanced standing is fully operational when it is accepted into law, medicine and dentistry."
But Mr Gray's remarks clearly indicate that deeper collaborative ventures between FE and higher education are now firmly on the agenda. The Executive believes that duplication of course coverage, where students have to repeat what they have learnt earlier, is wasteful not just of student time and resources but also of the wider opportunity costs which delay people's entry to the labour market.
Although the newer universities are regarded as keener on these course links than their older counterparts, this is not universally so. Lord Sutherland, outgoing principal of Edinburgh University, has often pointed out that the main institution feeding students into the university is Eton - but the second is Stevenson College in Edinburgh.