PUPILS who complete Advanced Highers should be fast-tracked straight into the second year of a university degree course, according to Scotland’s fair access commissioner.

Sir Peter Scott said pupils in sixth year could currently be “coasting” while those sitting the first year of a degree may not be sufficiently challenged.

As a result he has called for a debate over allowing greater numbers of pupils to skip the first year of a degree course.

The intervention is important because of current concerns there is too much overlap between the final year of school and the first year of a degree. Expansion of the trend would also provide an alternative to Scotland's established four year degree for some pupils.

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Current estimates suggest just 125 school leavers move from S6 into year two of a degree course every year with the majority those with two or three good Advanced Highers.

However, it is becoming increasingly common for college students studying higher level courses to enter university in either the second or third year.

Sir Peter said: "Some students may be coasting through S6, or not be sufficiently challenged in their first undergraduate year.

"In a minority of cases able students with Advanced Higher, and other evidence of academic maturity, might be able to enter university with some form of advanced standing.

"At present the numbers are tiny - only 1.4 per cent of S6 leavers with Advanced Highers are admitted straight into the second year - and there must be scope for increasing that number."

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Sir Peter said the suggestion was controversial because it appeared to be a threat to the established four year degree in Scotland.

But he added: "Such fears can be dismissed. A four-year undergraduate degree is the international standard, and three-year degrees are exceptional.

"However, this does not mean that Scotland can be totally exempt from the pressure to reduce course length in the interests of economy and efficiency."

Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, said the suggestion was worth considering, but could lead to further discrimination against those from poorer backgrounds.

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In 2014/15 only eight per cent of Scottish school leavers achieved at least two Advanced Highers with most coming from more privileged backgrounds.

And the body said the scale of growth was likely to be modest unless there was a major increase in the proportion of students who are able to study a range of Advanced Highers, requiring major investment in schools.

Other concerns centre on the differences in skills and core knowledge between Advanced Highers and study in the first year of a degree course.

A spokesman for Universities Scotland said: "A key challenge is how we can sufficiently encourage changes in student choice and behaviour because there is already flexibility available to students in the system which is not currently taken up."

Luke Humberstone, president of student body NUS Scotland, welcomed the "long overdue discussion" on the role that Advanced Highers could play in the wider education system.

He said: "Not recognising the true value of prior learning not only devalues an individual’s hard-earned qualifications, but also creates unnecessary repetition.

"This risks forcing students into a longer journey to achieving their qualifications, but also creates additional cost to those individuals and to the education system as a whole.

“However, we need to make sure that any development in articulation comes with enhanced support – whether that’s academic, financial, or welfare – to ensure students have the help they need to succeed in their studies."

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Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said the teaching union would welcome an expansion to the practice of Advanced Higher awards exempting students from the first year of a degree course.

He added: "Certainly in colleges the use of HND awards to directly access the second year of a degree course is well established and we welcome such integration of awards across the sectors and would be sympathetic to this being expanded, particularly in the context of a widening access agenda."

John Swinney, the Education Secretary, said: "There are various routes into a university degree in Scotland and we would encourage schools to ensure young people are aware of all the options available to them.

"Direct entry from S6 to year two of university is one of these options, but all pupils should choose the route that is right for them."

Sir Peter also called for an exploration of opportunities to co-deliver some S6 and first-year courses in partnerships between schools and universities.

He said: "From the perspective of fair access this could have the advantage of freeing up additional funded places, as well as being a component of the more flexible system of learner pathways - in the same way that fuller articulation between college courses and degrees would.

"This would lead, not only to an efficiency gain, but would also increase the number of students who could be funded and reduce the risk of displacement."