Scottish higher education qualifications
4.15 We have observed many admirable features of the Scottish higher education system. In particular, Scottish higher education qualifications allow for both breadth and depth of study, and dovetail with the distinctive Scottish school and further education qualifications. The academic breadth, which both the current schools examination system and the early part of degree programmes in Scotland encourage before specialisation, contrasts with early specialisation in the rest of the UK.
4.16 In considering the need for a high quality Scottish higher education system for the next century, we examined a number of scenarios, including the status quo, a revival of the ordinary degree, a move to the 'Other UK' model of a three-year honours degree, and a compressed Scottish model whereby the 4-year honours degree would be compressed into three years of study by utilising the summer period for teaching. We have incorporated elements of all of these scenarios into our vision for higher education in Scotland over the next 20 years.
4.18 We are aware that there are often sound academic reasons behind students' decisions to study for honours. As we stated earlier, the three-year 360 credit point ordinary/general degree can represent failure to obtain honours but it is also a separate qualification with intrinsic academic value. This 'honourable' status, however, appears to have declined in recent years. Even those commentators who, in their response to the Inquiry, were complimentary about the three-year ordinary/general degree, have referred to the need to 'restore' its previous esteem.
4.19 Students have told us that neither they nor, so they believe, employers, value the ordinary/general degree very highly. The majority seek to study to honours level because 'increasingly, the ordinary degree is viewed by students as the lesser option'.39 Further, competition for places on the more popular postgraduate certificate/diploma programmes tends to favour honours graduates and progression to research is difficult without honours. The disappointment of students who have attained a Third Class honours degree combines with a stigma which many believe can act as an impediment to early employment.
4.20 We are also aware of a number of initiatives amongst Scottish higher education institutions to revitalise and redefine the three-year degree as a positive choice of students. Where this has been done it has become a popular choice.
Proposed new Scottish
4.22 We propose that four major changes are brought about in Scottish higher education qualifications. These should occur against a backdrop of breadth of curriculum and open expansion, and should enable choice and opportunity for those who wish and are able to do so to study in patterns, and to levels, as presently available. We believe that:
Skills for employment
Scottish Bachelors degree
4.26 As we discuss later in this chapter, employers value both breadth and depth. Many are seeking individuals with highly specialised knowledge and skills, but many are also concerned about the general capabilities and potential of those with higher education qualifications. This is borne out in recent years by the fact that more than 40 per cent of jobs advertised for graduates in the UK have invited applications from most, or all, disciplines.41
4.27 Submissions received from the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals (COSHEP), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI Scotland) and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC), among others, have all called for the introduction of a new-style qualification. Whilst we broadly agree with SHEFC that 'the three-year degree of the future should build on the strengths of the current general degree and should be characterised by breadth of learning...the development of transferable skills and strong interpersonal abilities',42 we believe that this qualification could take a variety of forms as institutions determine. We believe there is much scope for the development of new and innovative 'products' of this type which will appeal to students and employers.
4.28 One model might embrace breadth as widely as possible, incorporating studies across faculties in the arts, technology and science. Another might comprise relevant combinations of subjects across one or two faculties. We believe that such combined qualifications would build particularly well upon the group awards which are proposed as part of the Higher Still reforms. There could also be more specialised and vocationally-oriented Bachelors awards which might also articulate well with HNC/D programmes. We envisage that in many cases the first 120/240 credit points might have been attained through HNC/D study in a further education college leading to study into second or third year - level H2 or H3 - of a 360-credit point Bachelor's programme in a higher education institution.
4.29 Although, as we have acknowledged earlier, several institutions are currently developing 360-credit point degrees , we envisage the Scottish Bachelors degree to be a new and distinctive concept which will be broader than many existing three-year Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree programmes, and which will incorporate key skills.
4.30 We encourage higher education institutions to involve employers in developing and implementing the new-style Bachelors qualifications, to ensure that the skills and broad education they contain are relevant to the needs of employers. Employer submissions to the Inquiry indicated that some were already involved, and the majority were interested, in programme design and content.
4.31 Holders of the Bachelors degree should be well-positioned to access a range of options. Chart 4.3 shows how progression might be achieved from Bachelors degrees on to other routes. For many it should be a highly regarded qualification in its own right and many who attain it may wish to go straight into employment. Some might continue or, where necessary, complete study for a professional qualification whilst in work. In such circumstances students might attain sponsorship from their employers or pay for their own studies. They may wish to progress to honours on a full-time basis or to return to honours at some later date or, in exceptional circumstances, they may wish to go on to postgraduate study. All of these options should be possible for holders of the Bachelors degree, although routes may be different from those with an honours degree. We are concerned that Bachelors students proceeding to honours should not be disadvantaged by the awards regulations which preclude access to grants and awards once a first degree has been achieved. We propose that the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) should consider offering the same conditions for such students as it does for students in similar circumstances studying other subjects such as law and medicine.
4.32 With more students entering higher education, demand for a robust 360-credit point/three-year qualification is likely to rise. We agree with the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals (COSHEP) that 'numbers of three-year degree graduates are set to increase fairly dramatically'.43
4.33 We envisage that the Bachelors degree would be available at 'pass' and 'distinction' levels and the National Committee's proposed Progress File44 would contain details of attainment and the student's grade point average. We prefer the title 'Bachelor' for this new-style three-year/360-credit point qualification to denote its novel content and structure and to avoid the negative connotations which anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that 'ordinary' and 'general' attract.
4.34 To have a real impact as a higher education qualification for employment the Bachelors degree should be designed as a qualification of high academic standing and we expect institutions to accord it the same priority as they do the honours degree.
4.36 We have considered the 360-credit point/three-year honours model which pertains in the rest of the UK and have agreed that there is no place for such a qualification in the Scottish qualifications framework. This, of course, does not preclude honours degrees with 480 credit points achieved over three years' duration due either to entrance with advanced standing, or through accelerated programmes, perhaps making use of a longer teaching year. As the cost of education to students increases, we predict there will be greater numbers of students seeking, and gaining, credit for entrance with advanced standing for A level and, eventually, Advanced Higher study. Financial and other imperatives may also result in more students wishing to complete their studies faster through making use of the summer term/semester.
4.37 We would expect to see more of these sorts of arrangements in future and suggest that the funding council should ensure that its funding model does not discourage institutions either from offering credit for entry or from developing and offering accelerated programmes.
4.38 Traditional honours programmes will continue and we believe it is important that the quality of the honours degree is maintained and enhanced. We envisage new variations of honours programmes will be developed such as a Bachelors plus 120 credit points' route, which we expect to become more common in future. The honours credit points might be acquired full-time or through part-time study whilst in work and entry to this pathway should be based on achievement at Bachelors degree level.
4.39 More honours programmes might contain a strong general and practical component and award credit for successfully completed workplace assignments and sandwich years at the appropriate level. This type of programme might attract sponsorship from employers. In many more cases the first 120 or 240 credit points of honours programmes might have been attained through HNC/D study in a further education college allowing for articulation into second or third level/year of a 480-credit point/four-year honours programme.
4.40 Over all, we consider that the traditional honours classification system will eventually prove to be inappropriate, particularly when the Progress File, recommended by the National Committee, becomes established as a meaningful record of achievement incorporating details of the student's grade point average in subjects studied. Whilst we would welcome a definite end to the honours classifications system in favour of these other more useful measures of performance and achievement, we do not consider it practical for Scotland alone to abandon this tradition. We therefore record our expectation that the system will quickly wither, following the widespread adoption of the Progress File.
4.43 We acknowledge that the development of these new Bachelors degrees will require time for development, specification and quality approval by institutions and for testing amongst employers and students. As such they will be progressively introduced. We expect the funding council to give encouragement to the design of such programmes and to take account of this qualification in its funding methodology.
4.44 With the proviso that all institutions should offer staged completion to all programmes, we consider that there should be diversity in the system with some institutions specialising in certain areas and levels and some in others. Further education colleges comprise a valuable component of the higher education system particularly in the provision of HNCs and HNDs and we believe that they should not generally offer qualifications beyond this level. In remote or rural areas, however, further education colleges, in partnership with higher education institutions, may be key providers of higher education programmes, including degrees.
4.45 There is also some limited, and we believe, appropriate, franchising of degree programmes carried out by further education colleges in Scotland. We suggest that all degree-level provision, including franchised provision, should be subject to the same quality assurance arrangements. Quality and standards throughout the Scottish higher education system must be rigorously preserved and, subject to this and the National Committee's recommendations, we agree that franchising should be a decision for individual institutions.
4.46 We have noted that other organisations, most notably professional bodies, have an interest in the structure and content of the degree, particularly where there are licensing requirements. Although professional bodies are extensively involved in the design and content of professional programmes we believe that if they were more prepared to assess their requirements in terms of the outputs expected, together with higher education providers, they could devise some flexible programmes of study which would prove highly attractive to students and beneficial to the professions.
4.47 Responses to the Inquiry consultation from professional associations and institutes suggest to us that our proposed structure could be capable of satisfying their requirements but we recognise that there is a need to take account of individual, professional and employer interests in any discussion which might lead to more flexible study arrangements.
4.48 We are certain that none of our proposed changes will happen unless institutions, students and employers are convinced of their merit and are prepared to work together to develop practical approaches to the qualifications framework. We acknowledge that a degree of fundamental change is necessary, although we believe this can be achieved through the evolutionary refocussing and rebalancing of existing qualifications within existing structures.