9.1 In this chapter we consider the nature of programmes of higher education and how the achievements of students are assessed and recorded. We address the principle in our terms of reference that: ‘learning should be increasingly responsive to employment needs and include the development of general skills, widely valued in employment.’ In doing so, we have had in mind the need to build on the established strengths of higher education, but we have also reflected on the implications of the evidence received from employers about their needs, and on the widening range of demands there will be from individuals in a lifelong learning society.

9.2 These considerations have led us to consider:

  • the breadth and depth of programmes;
  • skills in higher education programmes;
  • the relationship between work and other experience and higher education;
  • the assessment and recording of student achievement;
  • how to provide information about programmes.

Breadth and depth of programmes

9.3 We have given much thought to the appropriate breadth and depth of programmes, particularly at the undergraduate level. The breadth of programmes was a particular theme for the Robbins Committee. It felt that higher education was constrained by a tradition of relatively narrow educational experiences, and that its requirements drove a similarly narrow focus earlier in the educational system. We believe that, while many students will continue to welcome the opportunity to pursue a relatively narrow field of knowledge in great depth, there will be many others for whom this will be neither attractive, nor useful in future career terms, nor suitable. In a world which changes rapidly, the nation will need people with broad perspectives.

Employers’ views about breadth
9.4 Employers emphasised to us in their evidence the importance of high level analytical skills. The development of such skills characterises higher education, and should continue to be one of its primary purposes. Indeed, many employers are seeking individuals with highly specialised knowledge and skills, with the medical and veterinary fields as the most obvious examples. But employers are also concerned about the general capabilities and potential of those with higher education qualifications, not just about the subject they have studied. The recruitment patterns of employers demonstrate that they are often looking for rounded but adaptable people who can successfully tackle a range of tasks and be effective members of a team.

‘for many years over 40 per cent of jobs advertised for graduates in the UK have been open to applicants from most, if not all, disciplines’.1

9.5 Employers are, therefore, looking for a variety of entrants: some specialists, some generalists. A typical response to our employer questionnaire confirms this:

‘We will continue to need scientists and engineers ..over the next twenty years. (Applied skills with people management abilities – not pure science.) For other roles we will continue to need broad intellectual skills.’

Breadth and Robbins

9.6 On breadth, the Robbins report said:

‘There are unquestionably young men and women for whom study that involves penetration in depth is naturally appropriate. They are eager to get to the heart of the subject and to develop powers of rigorous analysis and observation within its ambit. For such students the specialist first degree courses...are an admirable education...Nevertheless there is another sort of mind that at the first degree stage is likely to be more at home in broader fields studied to more moderate depth’2

9.7 We agree with Robbins about the need for different types of programmes to suit different types of students. For Robbins, it was not breadth for its own sake which was important, but breadth reflecting long-established and natural groupings of subjects, or new combinations with recognisably organic connections. This is increasingly important as connections across disciplines become more apparent.

Future programmes
9.8 Breadth of study characterises Scottish higher education. We believe that introducing breadth more extensively would assist students to respond to the social, economic and cultural changes they will be facing throughout their lives by assisting them to think divergently and to integrate information and knowledge from a variety of sources. The way ahead is to provide a diverse range of programmes. Within this, specialists need the opportunity to understand their specialism within its context, and breadth – provided it is not identified with shallowness and lack of intellectual rigour – has a place of growing importance. Higher education qualifications which aim to provide breadth must reside within the same framework of qualifications as specialist and professional qualifications, and the matrix of choice must be underpinned by robust standards. In Chapter 10, we propose a framework of qualifications which will allow for flexibility of programme content, yet ensure that the standards of awards are maintained. One implication is that students who choose to specialise later could take longer than at present to reach the current honours degree standard.

9.9 We have already said that informed student demand should become an increasingly important factor in determining what higher education offers. In the light of the evidence we have received, we welcome the extent to which higher education has responded to the developing needs of students and employers. The fact that many undergraduate programmes are now modular (or unitised) means that the development of broad programmes is likely to be relatively straightforward. However, choice and flexibility must be constrained by coherence. In that context, we believe that the range of higher education degree programmes should have the potential for a student to:

  • study a single subject degree, where that subject is set in its broader context;
  • construct a broad foundation of knowledge and understanding in an area where the student may like to specialise later;
  • study a combined degree including a small number of subject areas;
  • study a general degree which would cover a wider range of subject areas providing a good advanced general education.

Recommendation 16
We recommend that all institutions of higher education should, over the medium term, review the programmes they offer:

  • with a view to securing a better balance between breadth and depth across programmes than currently exists;
  • so that all undergraduate programmes include sufficient breadth to enable specialists to understand their specialism within its context.

Barriers to the introduction of breadth
9.10 Opportunities to pursue studies in breadth need to be available for both young and mature people entering higher education. Outside Scotland, the experience of young people entering higher education has been constrained by the close focus of A levels. This is combined with the traditional practice of requiring candidates for higher education to apply to read a specific programme. This is in marked contrast to the USA where near-universal practice is to make an application to the institution. Once admitted, students take a fairly broad range of subjects in their early years, and on the basis of that experience decide on specialisation.

9.11 The majority of students in the United Kingdom (UK) are expected to have identified their speciality when they apply for admission. In the first year, they generally study their chosen subject in broad terms, with greater depth and specialisation occurring throughout the programme. This pattern of higher education, typical of the traditional, elite higher education system, has carried across into the more diverse system of today. We believe that it is not serving all students well. It requires applicants to higher education to be clear at a relatively early age what they want out of higher education, and promotes undue specialisation at school aimed at meeting the admission requirements for particular programmes.

9.12 This approach has been the subject of continuing debate over the last 30 years. Last year the report by Sir Ron Dearing proposed the introduction of an Advanced Diploma which would combine studies in depth to A level standard, with broader studies to the new AS level in four out of five domains of knowledge.3 This Diploma was intended to provide a strong preparation for higher education programmes, while leaving students who may be clear on the specialisms they wish to pursue in higher education to select closely related A levels. More recently the new Government made a Manifesto commitment to broader A levels.

9.13 Broader programmes are already a popular choice for part-time students: 57 per cent of them are on combined degree programmes, compared to only 12 per cent of full-time students. Clearly, offering choice between breadth and depth, and supporting many different types of broad study, is important if the sector is to provide opportunities for lifelong learning. Institutions that wish to introduce breadth to the early years of higher education programmes could consider admitting students to a faculty or to the institution, rather than to a specific programme, in order to send strong signals to schools and their pupils about the importance that higher education attaches to a broad education.

Skills in higher education programmes

9.14 Our consultations showed that employers want graduates to have a wide range of skills, such as those personal and cognitive capabilities that people use to carry out a wide range of tasks and activities. They include, for example, ability to communicate, to use information technology, to think critically, to use cognitive skills – such as an understanding of methodologies – or practical skills needed for the practice of a profession.

9.15 While our national consultation showed that a range of skills was valued by respondents across all groups, there was no consensus about a definitive list. For example, the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) identified: continuous learning; behavioural and interpersonal skills; problem identification and solving; information appreciation and management; communication; and general awareness.4 The Centre for Research into Quality identified a range of personal and interactive attributes as important characteristics for work.5 The former included: intellect; knowledge; willingness to learn; and self-management and motivation. The latter included: inter-personal skills; team working; and communication.

9.16 Nor did we find a consensus from employers on where the main deficiencies in skills lie, although about a quarter of them complained about the inadequate communication skills of graduate entrants. Our student survey showed that students themselves believed that many of their skills had improved while in higher education, especially their analytical skills. The one exception was numeracy, where only one in three students thought this had improved. Not surprisingly, improvements in numeracy and information technology skills were dependent upon the subjects studied by students.

9.17 Although it may be argued that to devote time to the development of skills is a diversion from a student’s main studies, and that the potential list of skills becomes so long that it is self-defeating, we believe that four skills are key to the future success of graduates whatever they intend to do in later life. These four are:

  • communication skills;
  • numeracy;
  • the use of information technology;
  • learning how to learn.

9.18 These are referred to as key skills throughout the remainder of our report. We believe that these key skills are relevant throughout life, not simply in employment. We include ‘learning how to learn’ as a key skill because of the importance we place on creating a learning society at a time when much specific knowledge will quickly become obsolete. Those leaving higher education will need to understand how to learn and how to manage their own learning, and recognise that the process continues throughout life. We propose one means by which students can develop their capability to take responsibility for, and manage their own learning, in Recommendation 20.

9.19 The development of skills is also a prime responsibility of schools and colleges. The 1996 recommendations on qualifications for 16 to 19 year olds encouraged all students to gain a certificate of competence in communication, numeracy, and the practical use of information technology.6 If higher education places an emphasis on these skills at entry, this will provide a sound basis for their further development.

Recommendation 17
We recommend to institutions of higher education that, over the medium term, their admission procedures should develop to value good levels of competence in communication, numeracy and the practical use of information technology.

Rest of chapter