HIGHER education (HE) is back at the top of the political agenda. The Scottish Government has made a new cabinet appointment and has a target to raise the HE participation rate of society’s poorest fifth to equal that of the richest fifth. Last month, the Sutton Trust reported that the most well-off people in Scotland are four times more likely to go to university than the least well-off, which compares unfavourably with England’s equivalent ratio of only 2.4:1. While this is not a new finding (already reported by the Commission for Widening Access and elsewhere), it is a powerful reminder of a long-standing challenge.

Some argue that Scotland’s overall HE participation rate is actually higher than England’s because more Scots take HE courses (HNCs and HNDs) in colleges. This is true. But colleges (for very good reasons) provide a different kind of experience from universities, and the good overall rate masks the fact that college students are more likely to be poor, while university students are more likely to be prosperous. This is not what most people would understand as social inclusion through education.

We could do much better by enabling HE students in Scottish colleges to move smoothly from college to university, if it suits them (recognising that university isn’t for everyone).

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The excellent Scottish Credit and Qualification Framework (SCQF) allows us to match college and university curricula. In principle, an HNC student should be able enter second year at university, in a corresponding programme, and an HND student should be able to enter third year. In practice, however, only about half of them are actually able to do this.

The other half don’t receive full credit for their college studies because, despite the apparent matching of SCQF levels, the universities they apply to don’t consider college courses a suitable preparation, and often have concerns about the transition in learning styles from the typically more directed learning at college to the greater autonomy required at university.

As a result, many students spend one or two years longer studying than they otherwise would, delaying the start of their careers, losing income from not working and perhaps incurring additional debt. More worryingly, in terms of social mobility, it discourages some students from making the move to university.

There is considerable variation in approach between different types of universities. More than a third of the students at my own institution, Abertay University, come from college, and almost all get full credit for their college studies. We ensure that our own curricula match the college curricula whenever appropriate college courses exist. We help to prepare college students for the transition to university, and support their move to a different style of learning after they arrive.

We do this because of Abertay’s strong sense of social mission – rooted in our 19th-century foundation as an institution to offer educational opportunities to all – and we make it a priority to support students from a range of backgrounds, coming into the university by different routes.

All universities should have – and in my experience actually do have – a sense of social mission, but the centre of gravity of the “research-intensive” universities is rather different. Historically, college students have been less of a focus for them. They recruit many more students from abroad, and their research typically plays a significant part in shaping their curricula.

So what can be done? I think we have to recognise two things.

Firstly, while different universities have different missions, it should be possible for a suitably qualified student to move, with full credit, to any type of university.

Second, resolving the mis-match between college and university curricula and learning styles will involve tough decisions, compromises and risk.

College curricula and styles of learning could be better aligned to university study, reducing the “culture clash” many college students experience at university. But could this risk making the two experiences too similar, reducing the flexibility on offer to students?

Universities could adapt their curricula to better suit students entering second and third year. But how might this affect the experience for traditional first-year university entrants? Would it reduce the flexibility of the curriculum? Would it harm the international marketability of degrees, and hence both university income and the international character of the student body (from which all students benefit)?

Given the extent of the challenge, I’m convinced both colleges and universities must adapt. Contrary to some press comment on the Sutton Trust’s report, it is not simply a question of universities “doing better”. It needs determined action across both sectors, combined with a willingness to compromise, and a realistic understanding of the costs and risks involved.

Professor Nigel Seaton is principal and vice chancellor of Abertay University