Go north to see how it's done

January 31, 2003

Tom Kelly cites the Scottish education system as proof that 'vocational' does not mean second rate

Plans for expanding higher education always seem to touch a raw nerve in Britain. Up come the familiar cries that the plans won't work, aren't needed and dumb down the otherwise pure standards of academia.

Government plans for the next phase of expanding higher education in England aim to achieve wider rather than simply increased access, and will use foundation degrees in further education colleges as the main vehicle of delivery. But what a pity ministers did not draw on the experience of Scotland to buttress their case and improve solutions.

Scotland's participation rates are already higher than England's. The age participation index for those under 21 is already above 50 per cent.

Without higher national certificate and higher national diploma courses in further education colleges, this would be 31 per cent. More than 60 per cent of Scots entering higher education for the first time do so via a further education college.

What Scotland has learnt and England will in turn learn is that:

* Unsatisfied demand to try higher education short of a full-time full degree is widespread

* Entry via a college draws in more of those at greatest disadvantage socially and economically

* Relevant, well-designed and up-to-date certificate and diploma courses carry great credibility and confidence with employers

* Students starting higher education in further education colleges are better degree students later.

So you can't tell this enlightened secretary of state that the 50 per cent target cannot be achieved and that one and two-year courses are not real higher education.

Of course, the middle class could co-opt foundation degrees. You can just picture the Oxbridge common rooms buzzing with speculation as to whether those in the arts and humanities could be offered to the early retired and wealthy - students who could be tapped for donations. What could be better?

That is why it is crucial that these courses are delivered by further education colleges. Many who missed their first chance of higher education can take advantage later only if they can study from home, while working and supporting a family. That is what further education colleges offer.

One reason Scotland is so far ahead in developing its integrated system of credits and levels is because it has a national and far-reaching system of higher national diplomas and certificates. The Scottish Qualifications Authority oversees the system and awards the certificates, while colleges develop courses.

When it comes to value for money, there is no contest. Tuition for one extra place on a three-year honours degree in business studies costs £12,099 compared with £2,067 for a one-year HNC and £4,134 for a two-year HND. The case made by universities that they are underfunded for teaching looks hollow in comparison with the cuts in unit funding that Scottish further education colleges have suffered in the past few years.

Education secretary Charles Clarke has based his case for vocational foundation degrees on the need for more "associate, professional and higher technician" level jobs over the next decade. That should be argument enough. Physicists can do the equations, but you need technicians to build the kit and get it to work.

But it is high time to bin the view that "vocational" means second-order higher education. Why are universities so reluctant to admit that nearly all degree courses are vocational, in the sense of being the first stage on the way to a "licence to practice", as in law and medicine, or to teaching and research in an academic subject.

Higher education for the many looks and feels different to those used only to higher education for the elite. But it is also fairer to individuals and better for the country.

Tom Kelly is chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges.

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