Analysis: Scots learning ladder

November 23, 2001

A new Scots credit system encourages lifelong learning by making the transition between all levels of education easier. Olga Wojtas reports.

The pioneering Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework will be launched in Glasgow next month. It offers a "route map" for lifelong learning, setting out levels and credit points for all the qualifications from Scotland's main awarding bodies, from standard grades, typically taken by 15-year-olds, to postgraduate degrees.

Institutions, employers and students can now easily see how the various qualifications compare with one another. The launch aims to promote a new "national vocabulary" in Scotland that will embrace any assessed learning, whether done in the workplace, the community or at home.

The SCQF springs from a collaboration between the Scottish Executive, the Quality Assurance Agency in Scotland, Universities Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. David Bottomley, deputy head of the QAA's Scottish office, believes it could underpin many of Scotland's educational concerns.

He said: "Under devolution, Scotland is pulling together an integrated lifelong learning strategy, and the new framework provides a context for that. I very much hope that it's recognised as an important development with the potential to support needs in a whole range of areas, such as community learning, the skills agenda and social inclusion."

The scheme has its roots in the Scottish Credit Accumulation and Transfer (Scotcat) scheme, backed a decade ago by all the then 21 higher education institutions. This established a common system of credit points and levels, and an agreement to cooperate in developing credit-based learning.

Implementing an integrated framework was the first recommendation of the Garrick committee, the Scottish arm of the Dearing higher education inquiry, in 1997. Progress has been slow, hampered by delays in the introduction of the Higher Still school examination reforms and by the SQA examinations results debacle. But Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said there was increasing optimism that the SCQF would now be put to use, following the appointment of Andrew Cubie as convenor of the SCQF's joint advisory committee. "We know he will put his shoulder to the wheel and get things moving," Mr Kelly said.

David Caldwell, director of Universities Scotland, sees the SCQF as a major success for higher education. "If it had not adopted Scotcat, we wouldn't be here now. That was the first building block."

But higher education is coming under fire over how credit accumulation and transfer will function. There are criticisms that a framework assigning credit points to particular courses is far removed from students being able to transfer freely between courses and institutions. And there is concern over the transition between further and higher education.

The National Union of Students Scotland has told the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee that there should be an agreed timetable for "implementing the framework". Mandy Telford, president of NUS Scotland, said the union had sought a fully integrated system of qualifications for many years.

She said: "(The SCQF) could create a flexible system in which students can build on qualifications as they progress through education. It could mean that in future students can progress at their own pace, transfer between full and part-time study, and gain credits to transfer between courses and institutions.

"There remain problems, however. First, even with the correct number of credits, some institutions may not tailor their courses to allow entry, and progression may be allowed at some institutions, but not at others. We are concerned that students will continue to have the right level of qualification in the right subject, but from the 'wrong' institution to progress, and that must be the next challenge."

Ms Telford said NUS Scotland wanted all institutions to ensure that students could progress smoothly from further education through to postgraduate level. The union has complained that although institutions may not consider qualifications to be equivalent, the student finance system does. It said students on Higher National courses are often forced to repeat a year to progress at another institution, but must then pay tuition fees for that year, and have no access to bursaries.

"We have also called for all higher education institutions to offer sub-degree qualifications for the first years of study, and allow students direct entry beyond the first year if they have equivalent qualifications in the appropriate subject already," Ms Telford said.

Lauder College principal Janet Low, giving evidence last week to the enterprise and lifelong learning committee on behalf of the ASC, called for "a little more enthusiasm" from higher education institutions in articulating courses. A student with, for example, a mechanical engineering qualification from a college might be obliged to do extra work before being admitted to a university mechanical engineering course at the next level. She suggested universities could consider revamping courses rather than expecting students to reconfigure learning.

There had been good commitment to the SCQF from university heads, Mr Kelly said, but slow progress in getting this translated into reality by departmental selection and admissions procedures.

But Universities Scotland warned of "slightly unrealistic expectations". Scotland did not have a national curriculum, but benefited from choice and diversity, Mr Caldwell said. This meant that a course at one institution might not dovetail with courses in that subject at other institutions. There could be legitimate prerequisites for entry to specific courses.

Wendy Alexander, Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, has said that the SCQF would make the relationships between qualifications clearer, clarifying routes for progress and maximising opportunities for credit transfer. But she stressed: "It will not, however, demonstrate equivalence of qualifications."

Articulation agreements already exist between many individual higher and further education institutions, but some higher education institutions are sniffier than others about them. The SCQF will make these more transparent: if an institution or organisation does not recognise credit, there will be an onus on it to explain itself.

This may also clarify good reasons why credit in a particular area does not automatically qualify the student for entry to a higher level elsewhere. Mr Caldwell said higher education institutions were anxious for students to succeed, and were therefore understandably cautious about transition arrangements.

He said: "What the SCQF will do is give a clearer, fuller indication of how well prepared an applicant is for what they want to do next. Ultimately all admissions decisions are individual decisions, but the SCQF creates a currency that is much more readily understood, and the process will become more streamlined and easier."

NUS Scotland has suggested financial or other sanctions for those institutions not implementing the framework, though Mr Caldwell said he believed penalties were unnecessary.

But the SCQF could have financial implications for higher education funding in the near future. There is a growing interest in shifting from the funding system of full-time equivalent student numbers to a credit-based system, tying funding to the amount of credit for which a student is enrolled.

Bill Harvey, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council's deputy director of quality and learning innovation, said: "The council acknowledges that an important element in encouraging further exploitation of the SCQF would be the introduction of credit-based funding, and has asked its executive to bring forward firm recommendations early in 2002 on a practical timescale for the introduction of this approach to funding."

Mr Bottomley said the challenge over the past few years had been to develop the framework, but the next stage was to convey the message to a wider audience. "Employers will be a key group," he said.

Employers' understanding of qualifications is notoriously scanty, but the SCQF cuts through the confusion with 12 levels covering the outcomes of learning and competence from basic education to doctorates. An employee with level seven, for example, which covers Higher National Certificates and the senior school Advanced Higher examination, should be able to exercise some initiative in defined tasks and take some managerial responsibility for others under supervision. PhDs can take full responsibility for their work, and deal with complex professional issues.

But Mr Bottomley said the level descriptors were only part of the framework's value. He said: "We feel the greatest potential of the SCQF doesn't lie in it acting as a description of qualifications, but providing a framework within which people across different sectors can start integrating their learning provision.

"To my mind, one of the biggest areas of potential is in community learning... (and) the potential of the SCQF as a means to recognise all the learning that takes place in communities. By giving credit for small bits of learning, people might be encouraged to say 'Maybe I can do a little bit more' and build on that to see the opportunities and choice open to them."

People would no longer feel that what they had done in the past was outside or different from the education and training going on elsewhere, he said.

"Similarly, there are a lot of different programmes aimed at people who want to be community workers, but quite often there are no links between them. The SCQF has the potential to develop clear progression routes, in effect a clear professional structure."

Mr Bottomley said he believed the framework could support all professions, including continuing professional development. "Within the SCQF, we can start building and making clear the potential links and routes for progression across related professions."

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