Scotland is better than England at getting people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education while avoiding controversial policies such as the 50 per cent target and top-up fees. Olga Wojtas reports.
The turning point for Linda Scott was a heart attack when she was 50. "I threw away my schooldays by being foolish. I left with nothing and the whole of my life I wanted to do something. I thought time was running out."
Ms Scott, a former shop assistant, joined an evening class in English at Dundee College, where another student encouraged her to take an information technology class and a lecturer advised her to go on an access course.
The one-year course, for mature students with no formal qualifications, leads to advanced qualifications at the college and reserved places at the universities of Dundee, Abertay Dundee and St Andrews.
Ms Scott gained a Higher National Certificate and then a diploma from the college and now, aged 55, she is studying for a joint English and history degree at Dundee. "I never dreamt in a billion years that I'd end up going to university. It still seems crazy that I'm there. It's the college that made all this possible," she said. "The access course is tailor-made for people who haven't done very well or have low confidence."
Each stage encouraged her to go further, she said. She is studying part time, partly because of family health problems but partly because she finds university study more demanding, with less personal support from staff.
"This is giving me time to get used to university."
The Scottish approach seems to work, as already more than half of school-leavers are destined to enter higher education with, as Ms Scott's case shows, many more going later in life.
In the UK, the school-leaver figure is about 35 per cent. The government is pinning its hopes of reaching its 50 per cent participation target for 18 to 30-year-olds, by 2010, on a combination of expanding the number of foundation degrees, largely taught in further education colleges, and university arm-twisting carried out by the proposed access regulator.
Expansion and widening participation are to be paid for by top-up fees.
The situation is less fraught north of the border, where further education colleges play a key role in widening access to higher education. More than 60 per cent of Scots going into higher education for the first time do so in a further education college.
And, while England's plans to increase participation focus on largely untried foundation degrees, Scotland is building on a well-established programme of HNCs and HNDs, which are not only qualifications in their own right but an important stepping stone to degrees.
The Scottish Parliament's enterprise and culture committee flagged up the importance of this route in its Scottish Solutions report, warning that any extra funds earmarked for higher education should not automatically go to universities.
The Association of Scottish Colleges told the committee that half of higher education students in colleges came from postcode areas of above average deprivation, and more than a quarter came from highly deprived areas.
Tom Wilson, principal of Glasgow College of Building and Printing, said higher education in further education was the key reason for Scotland's much-vaunted 50 per cent participation rate.
"But it requires a great deal of the further education college in the sense that they have got to take people with non-standard qualifications and provide them with not just academic support but personal support to make sure their confidence is strengthened."
A plumber who came to the college a few years ago was encouraged to take an HND in construction management, passed every unit with merit, gained a first-class honours degree at Glasgow Caledonian University and was now a university lecturer, Professor Wilson said.
Colleges and universities are working closely to widen access, and many colleges have individual articulation agreements with universities to make it easier for students to move from HN to degree courses.
Susan Bird is principal of Stevenson College in Edinburgh. She enjoys telling people that the college is the second-biggest provider of students to Edinburgh University after Eton and the biggest provider of students to Napier University. Some 95 per cent of full-time students come from within five miles of the college, which includes several deprived areas.
"Kids who have done well in the academic environment at school have skills that are absolutely suited to university," Ms Bird said. But individuals matured at different stages, she said, and higher education in further education was particularly good for students who had had bad educational experiences that knocked their confidence.
"Lots of our students come in through access programmes, move on to national qualifications, then have a shot at HNs. What we do is match the input to students' needs at the time," she said. "At the beginning, there's a lot more personal contact, but by HN we've weaned them off that. Their confidence has reached such a level that we're not worried that when they get to university, they're going to find groups of 50 or 60 frightening."
Asifa Maqbool, who has moved from Reid Kerr College to an accountancy degree at Glasgow University, said she felt better able to cope with university, having gone through HN courses that had regular assessments and feedback. But fellow students who have gone directly to university are having a tough time.
"There are 100 students in one class: there were just 22 in college. You have to do everything yourself and don't get that much support. My friends haven't got a clue what they're doing and are finding it really hard."
Ms Maqbool won a "candidate of the year" award from the Scottish Qualifications Agency for demonstrating how her college qualifications broadened her knowledge and helped her personal development.
Now aged 21, she came to Scotland from Pakistan five years ago to marry.
She was determined to study, but her husband and his family opposed this and the marriage broke up two years later.
She recognised that she would have to go to university to become an accountant but decided this was not an immediate option, given that she had no qualification at Scottish Higher level and no accountancy work experience.
"The teachers (at Reid Kerr) were so helpful and supported me so much. For me, it was better to go to college first. It is better to have a background and an outline of what the subjects are going to be," she said.
Glasgow College of Building and Printing has agreements with Glasgow Caledonian University for about 15 degree courses, and Professor Wilson said students' transition was eased further by college staff carrying out some of the university teaching.
There have been criticisms that the transition between the two sectors was not as smooth as it might be at national level, but Professor Wilson said individual local agreements were crucial.
"It is difficult for a nationwide approach to be taken because it's sometimes the minutiae that, if they are not handled carefully, could prove a bit of a problem. There has got to be pretty close liaison."
University staff come to the college to meet the students in advance, and even once the students move on they can continue to use familiar college facilities such as the library.
"The umbilical cord is never quite cut. It's important to remember we're dealing with people and not subjects," he said.
Ms Bird added that communication between university and college staff was key: "You know you've got it right when staff have coffee cups in one another's staffrooms."