In-fighting blurs Scots vision of flexibility

November 8, 2002

All Scots should have an educational entitlement to be used how and when they wish, according to a report to be debated in parliament at the end of this month. But the proposals have received a wary response from universities.

The key aim of the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee's (ELLC) wide-ranging report is to bring together the various education sectors.

Underpinning the proposals is the new Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF), which establishes a common system of levels and credit points for all mainstream qualifications. The committee says the entitlement should be 720 credit points, equivalent to taking an honours degree after leaving compulsory education.

But one proposal aimed at boosting degree links between further and higher education will not find favour with universities. The report, published last week, says that arrangements that allow students to progress from college to university do not go far enough.

"Articulation agreements between further education colleges and higher education institutions are almost always locally agreed and do not offer learners the full range of choice," it says.

The committee wants wider agreements between institutions, with funding conditional on demonstrating progress in offering, for example, two-plus-two courses, whereby two years at college are followed by two years at university.

Universities, however, are likely to oppose a national system. They argue that articulation has the best chance of succeeding when organised locally.

But the National Union of Students Scotland has been pressing for articulation to be a condition of grant. It said that agreements "between a handful of colleges and a nearby university" limited student choice.

And the proposal could find favour with the Scottish Executive. Iain Gray, minister for enterprise, transport and lifelong learning, has told the Association of Scottish Colleges: "One of the areas where progress can and should be made is the greater availability and use of two-plus-two models of progression through Higher National qualifications to degrees."

One of the most successful schemes is in Fife, where colleges have forged links with universities including Abertay, Dundee, Heriot-Watt, Napier, St Andrews and Stirling and have published information on which HN courses interlock with which degrees.

But there are complaints from further education that some students face a two-plus-four system, with universities refusing to give them credit for a diploma and expecting them to start a four-year degree from scratch.

A spokesperson for the ASC said: "Articulation agreements are working really well in some parts of the country, such as Fife. But there are still problems with anecdotal evidence of admissions personnel insisting that students with HNCs or HNDs start at year one.

"The six-year degree is ridiculous from anyone's perspective, especially the students'. They have already taken on a financial and personal burden to do a couple of years in college and to start at year one is obviously unacceptable."

John Field of Stirling University, Britain's first professor of lifelong learning, said that while some universities had done a great deal of work on articulation, "others have been very, very slow indeed and, I think, a bit sniffy".

Some 60 per cent of Scots going into higher education for the first time do so in colleges, and Professor Field said that if only certain universities accepted them subsequently, this raised issues of equity.

But many universities would argue that far from disadvantaging students, their caution protects them.

A Universities Scotland spokesperson said: "Higher education greatly values links with further education, and the many students that we take on with advanced entry benefits both sectors.

"The number-one priority for us will always be the interests of the student. We want to bring in students only if they have a good chance to achieve their potential. If they are not yet ready to dive straight into coursework that everyone else studying with them has had two years'

experience of, it will do them no good.

"We want a generation of lifelong learners. We don't want a generation of disillusioned students who fail to reach their potential because they've been pushed too fast."

Differences between courses mean that academic requirements of degrees and HN qualifications will not always dovetail. The ELLC report recognises this, but suggests that colleges and universities get together to run, for example, summer schools to bridge the content gap or to introduce different study methods.

This was a matter of practicality rather than principle, Professor Field said.

"The important thing is that students know what's possible and what they have to do. We don't have any excuse for delaying."

NUS Scotland said the commitment to the SCQF was crucial, since it would allow more flexible learning. Most college students study part time, while higher education is dominated by full-time learners.

The ELLC report also recommends that part-time students have the same pro rata fee support as full-time students. Professor Field said this would boost opportunities.

"That would be a revolutionary policy," he said.

Increasing student support, developing the SCQF and promoting bridging courses mean extra funding, but the ASC said the two-plus-two model potentially created "a universal, affordable and genuinely accessible higher education system".

Universities Scotland was more wary. Its spokesperson said it was important to ensure that articulation meant no dead-ends.

"But it should not be a way of getting people from low-income backgrounds into higher education on the cheap."

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