Defenders fear for exam's fate

July 10, 1998

The government has sanctioned one anomaly in its refusal to fund a fourth year at Scottish universities for non-Scottish students. But, asks Olga Wojtas, how different is higher education north of the border?

There is widespread anxiety that the four-year honours degree is under threat. It stands alongside the three-year general degree, which is a qualification in its own right and not merely failed honours. But over the past 30 years, honours degrees have become very popular with students and employers, and 70 per cent of graduates now have them.

The Garrick committee, the Scottish arm of the Dearing inquiry into higher education, urged a shift towards a revitalised general degree, with honours largely reserved for potential researchers and professional courses.

Scottish education minister Brian Wilson also wants more students to have the chance of graduating after three years, including greater numbers going into the second year of honours courses.

"This is not a masterplan to undermine four-year degrees. What it comes back to is flexibility and what is right for the individual," he has said.

But there are fears that this may paradoxically undermine existing flexibility. Both the general and the honours degrees build on the broad-based school system, in which pupils can take up to five or six Highers. Students then take three subjects in the first year rather than confining themselves to one specialism, and many honours students decide on their specialism only at the end of the second year.

"The Scottish four-year degree provides both breadth and depth of study," says David Bleiman, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers. "This provides flexibility and the option of changing stream with growing maturity."

Some A-level students are already admitted direct to second year, at the discretion of individual institutions and departments. So far only 10 per cent of A-level entrants skip the first year.

But this could be about to change. First, changes in student support may make students keener to avoid paying for a fourth year if they can gain the same qualification in three. And second, the Higher Still reforms will create a two-year Advanced Higher, which Mr Wilson says must be treated on a par with A levels when it comes to higher education entry.

"The government seems too ready to persuade A-level students to restrict themselves to three years of study in Scotland, and to equate Advanced Highers with A levels. This could be a double whammy for the four-year degree," says Mr Bleiman.

"If Higher Still is to be successful, it should provide a range of routes into higher education at different stages, and while there is no fetish about four years of university education, any developments should be based on educational and not financial grounds."

Ronald Crawford, secretary of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, points out that the debate is being overtaken by a more fundamental shift in approach to higher education. "We think the honours degree is worth defending, but we are not blind, assuming that lifelong learning and the establishment of a national framework of qualifications isn't going to lead to greater flexibility in the entire format and structure of degrees. We're listening to the argument that in future it is level, and not duration, that is going to dictate degree provision."

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