'All my life as an academic I have been conscious of a quite special debt to Scottish intellectual influences and a quite special admiration for the Scottish university tradition, both for its achievements and for the educational principles on which it rests'.1

Lord Robbins, 1968

2.1 Higher education in Scotland forms part of an educational continuum which has always been, and which continues to be, highly distinct from the provision available in the rest of the United Kingdom (UK). Characteristically, Scottish primary education is of seven years' duration, and secondary education of four compulsory years followed by one or two further years. Secondary school students sit a broad range of up to eight or nine Standard Grade examinations at age sixteen at the end of the Fourth Year (S4) and then up to five or six Highers at the end of the Fifth Year (S5). Many school students stay on for a further year of study in the Sixth Year (S6) where they may re-sit Highers to improve grades, study new Highers or study for the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies (CSYS), a more in-depth qualification.

2.2 The secondary school curriculum is therefore intentionally broad and is designed to articulate with Scottish further and higher education qualifications. This includes the degree structure which allows for study of a broad-based ordinary or general degree after three years of full-time study, or a more specialised honours degree after four years.

2.3 In carrying out our work we have considered and tested a number of widely-held assumptions about the Scottish education system. Those we have identified as distinguishing the Scottish education system from arrangements pertaining in the rest of the UK have been grouped below under four highly interrelated and interdependent categories of: culture, curriculum, participation and structure.

We have detected a strong belief in Scotland in the value of education, partly for its own sake and partly to overcome economic or social disadvantage. This is reflected historically in much higher participation rates in higher education than for the rest of the UK. Even in the 1990s we have found a strong belief that Scotland has:

'kept alive, not just in the universities but throughout the length and breadth of the land a continuing sense of the value of the national ideal of the democratic intellect, illustrating its social relevance by reference to Continental and to American as well as to English experience...'.2

2.5 Following from this, Scottish higher education also has long-standing links to an international community of scholars, most notably dating from the period of the eighteenth century enlightenment. Some features of higher education in Scotland - such as the length and structure of first degrees, the office of Rector, and the position of universities in major population centres - are closer to Australasian, Canadian and American university traditions than to universities in the rest of the UK and several of these overseas institutions have been associated with Scots from the time of their foundation. Strong links to European institutions also exist. As such, Scottish higher education is both well-known and well-regarded internationally.

2.6 Although commentators disagree about the extent, there is also a spirit of co-operation or 'common purpose' in the relatively compact Scottish system, despite competition for students and resources. We accept that this is possibly as much a function of the size of the higher education sector in Scotland as an innate collaborative willingness. The compactness of the sector makes possible rapid and effective communication among institutions and between their representatives and central agencies such as the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) and The Scottish Office. We see opportunities to further exploit this position which we discuss throughout our report.

2.7 Scots show a clear proclivity to study in Scotland, with the overwhelming majority attending Scottish universities and colleges. In 1994/95, 95 per cent of Scottish full-time entrants to higher education in the UK, under the age of 21, chose to study in Scotland.3 Given the distinctive nature of Scottish school qualifications, and the role played by further education, this is perhaps unsurprising. We considered the widely-held view that, compared to the rest of the UK, Scots tend to study close to home. We expected that such a trend might be reflected in the proportion of mandatory award holders assessed for and receiving the 'living at home' rate of grant. However, figures from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) and the Department for Education and Employment show that in 1995/96, the proportions of Scottish and English and Welsh students assessed for and receiving the 'living at home' rate of grant were approximately equal.4

Participation in higher education in Scotland is traditionally higher than in the rest of the UK - currently at about 10 per cent higher than the UK average as a whole - and Scotland has had more success than the rest of the UK at attracting students from social classes IIIm, IV and V. We believe that this is in some part due to the cultural factors outlined above but also as a result of the strong role played by the further education sector in Scotland in providing access to a higher proportion of the total higher education student population than in the rest of the UK. Forty per cent of Scottish higher education provision is in sub-degree level qualifications compared to a figure of 26 per cent for the rest of the country.5 We say more about the delivery of higher education programmes, and about the character of participation in Scottish higher education, later in this chapter.

2.9 Scotland is also a net importer of students from elsewhere in the UK and the world. In 1996/97, over 12,700 students from other parts of the UK crossed the border to study undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in Scottish higher education institutions.6

2.10 The basis for entry to higher education in Scotland is the 'Higher', which is one of the distinctive features of Scottish education. As a one-year qualification, Scottish school students may study up to five or even six Highers in the Fifth Year (S5) and currently 80 per cent of school students stay on into S5 or undertake equivalent study at a further education college.7 Thus Scottish school education ensures a broader education and later specialisation than in the rest of the UK where students must choose a maximum of three subjects at age 16, to which they will be committed for two years.

2.11 In 1995/96, nearly 42 per cent of students entering the Sixth Year (S6) did so with three or more Highers. These students achieved the minimum qualifications necessary to enter higher education but chose not to do so.8 The Report of the Howie Committee on 'Upper Secondary Education in Scotland' recorded that, in 1990, whereas 58 per cent of year S5 school students were presented for examination for the minimum number of Highers necessary for entry into higher education only 34 per cent achieved three or more passes.9 Trend data reveals that staying on into the Sixth Year (S6) is increasingly the choice of most school students. Year S6, is, therefore, largely used by those who do not yet wish to leave school or those who have not attained the necessary prerequisites for higher education entry to 'top-up' their qualifications portfolio, either through resitting with a hope of improving their grades, studying new subjects altogether and/or studying their best Higher subjects at Certificate of Sixth Year Studies (CSYS) level. Indeed, the Howie Committee concluded that 'for most pupils, one year of post-compulsory schooling is too short a time in which to gain sufficient qualifications for desired destinations'.10

2.12 In 1994, following the report of the Howie Committee, which addressed a growing and widespread concern in Scotland about the content and structure of upper secondary education in schools, the Government announced the introduction of the Higher Still reforms. A major aim of the proposed changes is to bring more students further, by providing additional exit points prior to the Higher. This may have a considerable effect in qualifying more school students to participate in higher education, particularly at Higher National Certificate (HNC) and Higher National Diploma (HND) level. The Higher Still reforms will also introduce a new, two-year qualification - the Advanced Higher - with students studying for it being encouraged to commit to studying throughout S5 and S6. Although students will be able to bypass the traditional Higher exam, many may wish to sit the appropriate Highers as insurance against their final performance in the Advanced Higher exams.

2.13 Scottish higher education institutions are currently considering the implications of these new qualifications for their curricula and admissions policies and we say more about this in Chapter 4, below.

2.14 It is commonly held that study for higher education qualifications in Scotland contrasts with that in the rest of the UK, where entry tends to be by department and it is difficult to make a significant change in direction once locked into a degree course. In Scotland, entry to many traditional institutions is often by faculty, and selection for a specific honours programme is made at the end of the second year. This provides students with greater flexibility and choice than elsewhere in the UK. At the University of Aberdeen, for example, 60 per cent of the students on undergraduate MA and BSc programmes graduate with degrees which are different to those declared as intended at entry.11 General entry by no means applies throughout Scotland however. Many vocational and professional courses, particularly those offered by the new universities and colleges of higher education, tend to follow more closely the arrangements in the rest of the UK.

2.15 In Scotland, as many respondents to the Inquiry have pointed out in their evidence, for many students the three-year ordinary or general degree has an intrinsic academic value and may be a student's chosen qualification. It may also be a student's chosen qualification aim and, as such, represents an honourable third-year exit point. However, there is strong anecdotal evidence, from students, to suggest that it is not as valued as it once was by employers. This may in part be due to ordinary or pass degrees also being awarded to some failed honours students.

2.16 The Scottish higher education system has always been characterised by a strong practical or vocational strain and there is a long-standing Scottish tradition of 'professional training based on a firm educational foundation in the liberal arts and sciences'.12 We have noted that in 1994, 55 per cent of diplomates - usually with an HNC or HND qualification - from further education colleges, went on to further, full-time study, largely degree study, at a higher education institution. This represents a rising trend and compares with a figure of 17 per cent in 1985.13 These links between HNC and HND and degree programmes suggest a less-pronounced distinction between academic and vocational subjects in Scotland.

There are strong links between many Scottish institutions and the local community. Unlike the experience in England, where universities existed only in Oxford and in Cambridge until the nineteenth century, universities have existed in Scotland's main population centres for centuries. A long-standing tradition of links exist between the universities, their local communities and economies in the provision of an educated workforce, of facilities such as theatres and libraries and of applied research, design and development services.

2.18 The new university sector in Scotland differs from its counterpart in the rest of the UK by having a more clearly defined and distinctive mission. This derives from the new universities' and colleges' origins as centrally-funded institutions of The Scottish Office which, prior to 1992, exercised a course approval mechanism for institutions. This served two primary purposes: first, it influenced the shape and size of the sector as a whole; second it retained the vocational character of these institutions which were not allowed to develop, for example, in fields such as the humanities. This was unlike the English polytechnics which considerably broadened their provision into all areas between the late 1960s and early 1990s. In Scotland, therefore, the system retains its diversity and there has remained a clearer distinction between the 1992 institutions and the pre-1992 institutions.

2.19 The funding remit and coverage of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) - outlined below - is different from that of its English and Welsh counterparts. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) funds higher education in both higher education institutions and in further education institutions whilst the Further Education Funding Council for England (FEFC) funds further education in further education colleges and higher education institutions. In Scotland, SHEFC funds higher education institutions, and The Scottish Office funds further education institutions, including higher education programmes in those further education institutions.

2.20 We have concluded that the size of Scotland is key to a number of distinctive developments. For example, all Scottish higher education institutions are signatories to the Scottish Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (SCOTCATS), which applies country-wide and was the first in the UK.14 SCOTCATS has been developed around Scottish educational qualifications and, as such, is different from other credit frameworks, whilst employing similar principles. We expand on this in Chapter 4.

2.21 This compactness facilitated the establishment in 1992 of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals (COSHEP) to represent all the heads of higher education institutions on issues of common concern. Similarly, we believe that the institutional co-operation necessary for the development of Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) in Scotland, in advance of the rest of the world, may also be a function of size.15

2.22 Student support arrangements are also a reflection of size. Maintenance awards for Scottish-domiciled students are distributed by a national body, the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS). This is in contrast to the local focus of these awards elsewhere in the UK.

In summary, underpinned by a broader-based schools' curriculum, many components of the Scottish higher education system are necessarily different from those operating elsewhere in the UK. There appear to be broadly comparable awards across the UK at levels such as HND, honours degrees and higher awards, but timescales for achievement of these and costs, not surprisingly, show variances. Despite Scottish distinctiveness, and its likely continuation, we heard evidence from many sources to confirm the desirability of the Scottish higher education system remaining very firmly embedded within the overall UK system of higher education.

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