In the third of our series, Olga Wojtas looks at access to higher education in Scotland
The Scottish Wider Access Programme celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, with more than 6,000 students having gone through its courses.
The one-year SWAP courses are geared to mature students. They are modular, using continuous assessment without a final exam. And successful completion guarantees a higher education place.
Scottish Office funding for the scheme ended in 1994, but the three SWAP consortia of colleges and universities in Scotland still continue with external support.
Myra Duffy, director of the Glasgow-based SWAP-West, said many original SWAP students were skilled workers seeking conversion courses following the decline of shipbuilding and heavy engineering.
"Quite a different client group has now developed, with many people from very deprived areas, and many who need a lot of help in core skills," she says. "SWAP is not a dedicated course for one institution or another. As students progress, they are given help and support on where they should end up."
There has been some scepticism over the Garrick committee's assertion that Scotland leads the United Kingdom in attracting students from the lower socio-economic classes. But despite a dearth of hard evidence, Garrick's view is plausible, given that almost a third of Scottish higher education is offered by further education colleges.
"It's difficult to get a handle on social composition in further education intakes, because most colleges recruit locally, and there is no single archive such as the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service," says Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges. "But the student awards bulletin shows nearly 70 per cent of students taking HNCs, HNDs and degrees in Scottish colleges are assessed as requiring no parental or family contribution, as opposed to 40 per cent for the university sector. So a much higher proportion of college students studying higher education full-time come from disadvantaged backgrounds."
Scotland is well placed to move to an integrated qualifications framework, since every higher education institution has signed up to the Scottish Credit Accumulation and Transfer scheme, a common system of higher education credit points and levels. But reality does not necessarily match the vision.
"We have limited patience with those higher education institutions that say further education qualifications don't fit with their curriculum," said Mr Kelly.
David Swinfen, chairman of the Scottish Advisory Committee on Credit and Access, said a framework embracing all Scottish qualifications would promote a fresh approach to widening access. The question now is what arrangements are needed to meet the diverse needs of potential learners.
"The access consortia have achieved much in meeting the needs of disadvantaged groups," he said. "We need to think also of the needs of those who might wish to study part-time in higher education, or those in work who might wish to accumulate credit over a period of time, and ways in which credit offered for learning gained through experience at work can enable access to the framework."
Higher education has just won Pounds 6 million from the Scottish Office over three years to develop part-time undergraduate courses, backed by fee waivers for unemployed or low-income students.
The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has also taken the bold step of committing at least Pounds 1 million annually over the next five years to promote wider access. It has commissioned a new survey of higher education participation based on postcodes, which it hopes will help concentrate institutions' efforts on areas of greatest need.