Education: Northern light

Why do so many Scots go to university? Diana Appleyard finds out and considers what the rest of Britain might learn
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The Independent Online
In England, one in three young people is in some form of higher education. In Scotland, the comparable figure is 45 cent. Scotland also has a much higher retention rate for students in higher education. The reasons, according to those running higher education in Scotland, are many, and begin at the earliest level. Scotland has only a handful of public schools and, as a result, overall standards in state education are higher than in England.

Education at all levels is better funded, by about 10 per cent It is also more highly regarded. Some speeches by university vice-chancellors are printed in full in The Scotsman. Education is closely linked to the whole economy.

"Historically, participation rates in higher education have always been high," says Norman Sharp, head of the Scottish Office of the Higher Education Quality Council. "In this country, higher education is not seen as the preserve of the elite - it is open to everyone. The structure for staying on in education is much more flexible and there has always been much more support for wider participation in higher education."

In England, the Government has imposed a freeze on the number of students entering higher education. It had set a target of 30 per cent by 2000 but that proportion was reached in 1993. That has meant that huge financial constraints have been placed on many English higher education institutions, which are locked in a battle for more funding with the DFEE.

But in Scotland, at the time of consolidation, no restriction was placed initially on the number of higher education students in further education colleges. The participation rate in higher education was already much higher than in England, and the figures soared.

And while English universities are funded by the DFEE, which has to fight its corner in the yearly battle with the Treasury, in Scotland higher education institutions are funded directly by the Scottish Office.

John Fizer, chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, says: "Traditionally, higher education is funded more generously than in England. The Secretary of State for Scotland takes the decision on what is best for the country as a whole and education is rated very highly in terms of the overall Scottish economy. He can make decisions in the round. I would say Scottish higher education receives around 10 per cent more than English institutions."

The whole structure by which students reach higher education is also different in Scotland.Students take "highers" rather than A-levels and they are much more broadly based. Students will take an average of five subjects. They can take these exams while still in the fifth form, although most go on to the sixth form.

There is only one year at sixth form but degree courses at Scottish universities take four years rather than three. In the first two years, students typically take a broad range of options before specialising in the third year, called "junior honours", and then completing the degree in the fourth year - "senior honours".

"Highers have the advantage over A-levels in that they allow youngsters to cover a breadth of the curriculum," Mr Sharp says. "They don't have to cut themselves off at 14 from whole areas of academic subjects, and it also doesn't mean a two-year commitment at the end of their fourth year."

Highers, however, are also undergoing a programme of change, called "Higher Still". The aim is to offer more flexibility through modularisation and to bring them together with vocational qualifications. The change is likely to mean that the Scottish Higher Examination Board and Scotvec, which governs vocational qualifications, will be merged to form a single body called the Scottish Qualifications Authority from next month. As Mr Sharp says, it will help to break down the barriers between academic and vocational qualifications - another important plank in the country's national educational strategy.

There are many programmes in Scotland to attract people of all backgrounds into higher education, by making it less elitist and more accessible.

Much of Scotland's success in attracting students into higher education is put down to active initiatives such as the "Scotcat" scheme. Scotcat, or Scottish Credit Accumulation and Transfer, and is run by most Scottish higher education institutions. Thousands of Scottish students use the scheme. At Paisley, more than 2,000 of the university's total student population of 9,500 gained entry using it.

Students are allocated credits for any assessed learning. This can be anything from a Higher National Diploma or Higher National Certificate to qualifications from professional bodies Credits can also be given for "experiential learning" or life skills. This could be job experience or even raising a family. In many cases Scotcat students can skip at least the first year of a degree course; their credit points allow them to miss out certain course modules.

Each university is responsible for assessing its own credit ratings. The overall quality of the students is periodically checked by the Higher Education Quality Council. Scotcat students achieve as high a percentage of exam success as all other students.

A significant proportion of higher education is delivered through collaborations with further education colleges, especially in more remote parts and in areas of urban deprivation, so people can go to their local college and still take a degree course. There is also the "Swap" initiative, the Scottish Wider Access Programme. It was set up by the Scottish Office about 10 years ago to stimulate wider participation in further and higher education by under-represented groups such as women and ethnic minorities.

As well as having leaders in education who actively pursue wider access policies, Scotland as a whole also seems to have a different attitude to higher education. "Education here is seen as being complementary to the competitiveness of Scottish industry," Mr Fizer says. "The influx of foreign industry into Scotland is largely based on the fact that companies know they will be able to find a skilled and flexible workforce, because of the high number of people using higher education.

"Innovative industries from countries like Japan and Korea are coming here because they know they will get a workforce which operates efficiently. The service industries like banks are coming in largely because of verbal fluency which is a direct result of the strong state education system."

Mr Fizer, who is from England, says that he has been fascinated by the different attitudes. "There isn't the rigid class structure here," he says. "Because a much higher proportion go through the state sector, the whole education system is much stronger. There also isn't the competitiveness between institutions - I have funded 60 collaborative projects since I arrived."

Most Scottish students go to their local university. Mr Fizer speaks of a strong civic pride in the local higher education institutions. The principals are highly influential figures who associate closely with the key figures in industry.

When Sir Ron Dearing presents his recommendations on higher education in the summer, there are many north of the border who expect the Scottish model to figure prominently. As one influential figure, who did not wish to be named, said, "It's claimed that Sir Ron has said, `How can we create in England what we have in Scotland?'"n

From poor exam results to PhD. The molecular biologist who made good

When 22-year old Ross Thomson gained just two C grades in his Highers, he thought he had ended his chances of going to university. "I was deeply disappointed," he says.

However, as a result of the wider access policy in Scotland, he's now in his third year reading molecular biology at the University of Glasgow. Students joining the same university course straight from school have an entrance requirement of four Bs.

"After my Highers I took an HNC in applied sciences at Stow College of Further Education - and then went on to take an HND. Once I'd got that, I went to see the advisory tutor in the science department at Glasgow University and he told me I could jump straight on to the second year of a degree course, using these previous qualifications.

"My sister went to university after her Highers, and I didn't really think I could get in," he says. "When they told me my HND and HNC would give me an award which meant I could skip a year of the degree course, I was delighted. My mum and dad are really proud of me, and even though I haven't the same academic qualifications as many other students on my course, I can keep up with the work without problems."

Ross is now planning to go on and take a PhD in "some form of virology", and then hopes to work in research into HIV.

Dr Peter McCabe, advisory tutor in the science department at the University of Glasgow, says, "Around 13 per cent of this department's students are accepted with qualifications like Ross's. This gives us the flexibility to look at a whole range of students, not just those with the accepted level of academic qualifications. "We've found the calibre of students is just as high, and, of course, it opens up the university to many more gifted students"n

My `life skills' have made me a better student. You think more deeply

The "Scotcat" award is very widely used as acceptance on to degree courses in the social sciences. Fiona Kay, 44, had been a nurse before giving up her career to raise a family and help her husband with his hairdressing business.

"Once my three children had reached their teens I wanted to go back into education, but I had no idea I could be accepted on to a degree course," she says. "Then I had a friend who'd used the `CAT' scheme to get into Paisley University, so I thought I'd give it a go."

She applied to Caledonian University in Glasgow and found that her RGN qualification and six years in nursing gave her 60 credit points, which meant she could skip a year of a combined degree in sociology and psychology, thus jumping on to the third level in psychology and second level in sociolooy. "They also took into account my experience in raising a family and working in our business in terms of my suitability for the course, although I wasn't given any actual credit points for that past experience," she says.

"The `CAT' scheme gave me the confidence to go back into higher education," she says. "It would have been a real mountain to climb to start a degree right from the beginning but this gave me a head-start. Obviously when you have a family and ties at home, it's very difficult to follow a full- time degree course. The fact that I could skip modules in both of my subjects was a real incentive - and the flexibility of the course means I can fit my family commitments around my studying."

She is taking the course over five years doing two modules a year, which at present is all she can fit in. "I'm hoping to speed up a bit when I have more time," she says.

The course costs around pounds l80 per module. "I look on it as an investment," she says. "I'm hoping to go into special-needs teaching. I think my `life- skills' have made me a better student - you think more deeply about what you're learning. At first my family did laugh and say, `Where's it all leading, mum?' and some of my wider family don't understand at all. But it's given me a goal to work towards, something separate from my family. Now I'm thinking `What else can I attain?' It's also made me much more aware of young people's problems and give me a wider view of the world"n