UNIVERSITIES are not accepting enough students from colleges because they are prejudiced against vocational education, according to a top government advisor.
Professor Peter Scott, the country’s first commissioner on fair access to higher education, also suggested the mixed record of some universities when it came to college transfers was linked to fears their league table positions could be damaged.
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The academic, who has been in post since December, gave a talk last week at Holyrood to key figures from the higher education sector, during which he outlined his thoughts on his brief.
Part of his speech was on ‘articulation’, which gives students who get a Higher National (HN) qualification a credit to transfer from college to university without having to start at the beginning of first year.
Figures from the Scottish Funding Council reveal that the post-1992 universities have accepted far more students through articulation than the so-called ‘ancients’ Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen, Edinburgh.
In 2014/15, there were 980 cases at Napier University and 1557 instances at Glasgow Caledonian, but only 95 people transferred to Edinburgh University via this route and for St Andrews the figure was a lowly 29.
In his speech, a copy of which Professor Scott provided to this newspaper, he addressed the fact that college students were having to start a university courses in first year: “Frankly it is not right that half of HN students transferring to degree courses in universities receive no credit and basically have to go back to the starting line, especially when the Funding Council has set a much higher target for HN students to be given advanced standing.
“It is unfair to them, and costly to the taxpayer - and, most important of all, it is treating a HN as entry-level qualifications, like Highers, when, in fact, they are two-year post-school, and higher education, qualifications.”
He also criticised some universities for doing less than others: “I don’t need to look at the statistics to know which universities are doing the ‘heavy lifting’ on articulation and are most open to transferring HN students - are we happy to live with that imbalance?
“Second and more fundamental, maybe there is an elephant in the room here - a continuing prejudice in favour of academic and against vocational education.”
Contacted by the Sunday Herald, Professor Scott elaborated: “Napier or Glasgow Caledonian would be more ready to accept Higher National students and give them some advanced standing, than St Andrews would be.”
He also said: “I guess if you are at St Andrews, or somewhere like that, it’s a bit of a closed book what a Higher National is.”
Asked if he believed that, for the ancients, there was a stigma attached to allowing college students to go directly into second year, he said: “One point that did come up in the discussion is that I think universities are really worried about their position in league tables these days.”
He explained by saying there was a “general fear” in some universities that “any sort of modification” of intake “might” have an impact on league tables.
He said: “And they are all obsessed by league table positions. Too much so in my view.”
Vonnie Sandlan, the President of the National Union of Students in Scotland, said: “As the Commission on Widening Access showed, our Ancient universities account for a bare fraction of articulation activity in Scotland – and even then, the majority of those students are forced back into first year, unfairly repeating years of study, and taking on the extra debt and workload that brings with it. That’s a scandalous missed opportunity, and comes at a huge cost – both to the student and the resources we have available for higher education.
“It’s appalling that the status quo allows universities to pick and choose if they’ll properly recognise and accept those qualifications. That creates inconsistencies across the country, with the usual suspects not pulling their weight. That becomes inexcusable if any university is relying on outdated, offensive and elitist excuses of academic ability, or risks to league table position.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Funding Council said: “We have individual outcome agreements with each of Scotland’s 19 universities allowing us to agree widening access targets on a university by university basis. We will consider all the evidence to make sure every university in Scotland is playing its part in creating fairer access to higher education.”
A spokesperson for Universities Scotland said: “At the moment, across Scotland, almost every second college leaver, for which we have data, gets full credit for their Higher National qualification when they start university, allowing them direct entry to second or third year. That figure can be improved and universities are committed to doing so. It is one of three key areas that universities are working on as part of their response to the recommendations from the Widening Access Commission."
On the league table claim, the spokesperson said: “Universities are focused on student satisfaction, educational excellence, positive destinations of their graduates and high-quality research. Many of these things are captured by league tables and reflected in performance. Widening access and making a change to entry rates is one thing but the real goal has to be ensuring that every student, from whatever background, has a positive experience, completes their course and goes on to a successful outcome."
A spokesman for the University of St Andrews said: “In our experience, there are many different reasons why students and universities may choose not to apply the SCQF credit framework for HNC/D, and these depend largely on individual circumstances and preferences.”