WHEN Advanced Highers were introduced into the Scottish curriculum in 2000, replacing Sixth Year Studies Certificates, they incorporated many features similar to first-year courses at university and effectively provided a bridge to the latter. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then, and it is perhaps time to reassess the link between Advanced Highers and university.

Advanced Highers give pupils the opportunity to undertake challenging work on their own. The qualification is well regarded in higher education for its encouragement of self-motivated learning. Success in it indicates maturity, self-confidence and the ability to work independently.

So well regarded is it indeed that it attracts more points from the Universities and Colleges Admission Service than do A-levels at the same grade. One reason for this is that it, in many respects, it is the same as a first-year course at university. And this presents a conundrum: why repeat the same sort of course twice? Why not go straight into second year?

These are questions that have been raised by Professor Sir Peter Scott, Scotland’s Commissioner for Fair Access in Higher Education. While a very small number of pupils with Advanced Highers can currently start university in second year, this is usually under exceptional circumstances or restricted to science subjects. Sir Peter has raised the possibility of increasing this number, not just because, from the point of view of fair access, it could free up additional funded places, but because it could end a situation where students who passed Advanced Highers find themselves not being challenged sufficiently in first year at university.

Elsewhere, it has been pointed out that “advanced standing”, as it is called, could speed up entry into employment or postgraduate courses and encourage more students to aim for the latter. No less importantly, from the student’s point of view, it could reduce debt.

Should such a possibility prove popular and feasible for many, it raises implications for the four-year degree, which is now the jealously protected standard. But Sir Peter suggests that it might actually protect this by making access to it more flexible. It could also be argued that advanced standing would not apply to the majority of students. However, for many it might make sense and prove an attractive option. As we report today, Advanced Higher “hubs” at several universities such as Glasgow Caledonian have provided a useful bridge for students – including many from disadvantaged backgrounds –between school and university study. They study in a university environment and follow the same first-year type of course as do the pupils in school. If they go on to a full university course, they might wonder why they are spending the first year treading water, as it were. As with many young people leaving school, they might also want to keep down debt and get into employment quicker.

There is much food for thought here. Possible downsides of going straight into university at second year include losing out on a valuable phase for establishing social networks and feeling pressurised by plunging straight into an accelerated programme. However, this would not be the case for all students, and there may be an argument for offering more flexibility in university entrance, particularly where this takes forwards the “fair access” agenda. Nearly 18 years after the introduction of Advanced Highers, much has changed. The majority of students now stay on till sixth year, often taking Advanced Highers. Sir Peter has suggested that there has been a lag in considering how these qualifications have come to relate to the first year of undergraduate education. We suspect he may be right and that it is time for a bit of catching up.