Scotland's much-vaunted 50 per cent student participation rate in higher education "disguises deep and entrenched educational inequalities", an expert on lifelong learning has warned, writes Olga Wojtas.
Scotland's high participation rate hinges on the number of students taking higher education courses in further education colleges. In 2001-02, almost a quarter of higher education students were in colleges.
But John Field, director of Stirling University's division of academic innovation and continuing education, said that Scottish policy was making a limited contribution to the drive to attract more working-class students into higher education.
While the initial entry rate to higher education might be 50 per cent, those who went into higher education in colleges were disproportionately likely to leave without qualifications, he said. And few who achieved a higher education qualification in college went on to take degrees.
Writing in the Journal of Access Policy and Practice , Professor Field says evidence suggests that around one-fifth of students on HNC courses and one-third of those on HND courses do not go for the award, while a quarter of those who enter for HNCs and a third who enter for HNDs do not get a qualification.
"The higher education system is creating opportunities for half of young people to enter, but far too many of them are going in by a revolving door and shooting right back out again with little or nothing to show for it," Professor Field said this week.
"Research has shown that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to take up higher education in a further education college than in a university. But if they then go on to study for a degree, they are often channelled into low-status areas with poor career prospects."
Colleges tended to focus on HN courses rather than degree programmes, which meant that many people in higher education institutions had only a hazy knowledge of what colleges provided in terms of higher education.
This meant they did not always see the potential for partnership. But Professor Field acknowledged that the focus on HN courses could also be a considerable asset, since they were recognised and well regarded by employers and parents.
This is reinforced by findings from the Scotecon network of economists in Scottish universities.
The network's investigation of Scottish further education qualifications found that students who have HNDs are just as likely to be employed as university graduates.
But in the rest of the UK, graduates were more likely to be in work.
In Scotland, further education qualifications also compensate for the lack of school qualifications, enabling students to earn the same wages as someone with Highers.
In the rest of the UK, those with A levels typically earn more than those with further education qualifications.
But the report says that more research is needed to look at the returns on qualifications in specific subjects in both further and higher education, and to examine non-traditional routes through both sectors.