Scottish higher education qualifications

'The Scottish brand of higher education - with its emphasis unambiguously on academic excellence, depth and breadth of learning...- can play a key part in assisting Scotland to ready itself for the tremendous challenges - intellectual, sociological, scientific, technological and industrial - that are set to confront our nation.'36


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.

Existing Scottish qualifications
The most common qualification aim of students in Scottish higher education institutions is the first degree with 71 per cent choosing this option. In further education colleges, 95 per cent of full-time higher education students are studying for an HNC or HND.37 In 1994/95, of those studying for degrees at higher education institutions 28 per cent received an ordinary, general or pass degree and 71 per cent received an honours degree.38 We have heard strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that the proportion of ordinary or general degrees awarded has fallen substantially, compared to honours degrees, over the last 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 qualifications
As we move into a new century, we believe that student choices will widen further and that there should be new qualifications available which more readily meet the needs of individuals, employers and society. Future emphasis should be on ability and attainment, not on years of study. The honours degree has served us well and will continue to do so. However, evidence presented to us clearly heralds the need for change. Such change must, of course, be carefully introduced so as not to result in destabilisation of the existing system.

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:

  • key skills for employment should be embedded into all qualifications;
  • institutions should give priority to the creation of new degrees - to be known as 'Bachelors degrees' - in the form of a three-year qualification carrying 360 Scottish Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (SCOTCAT) credit points;
  • institutions should offer more variation and variety in honours study;
  • institutions should explicitly offer sub-degree qualifications, akin to the Certificate and Diploma of Higher Education, for the achievement of 120 and 240 credit points at levels one and two at the end of years one and two of traditional study or equivalent achievement in a different timescale.

Skills for employment
The weight of evidence from Scottish employers is that graduates lack practical skills. Accordingly, we endorse the four key skills identified by the National Committee to be incorporated as appropriate into higher education programmes. These are communication, numeracy, the use of information technology, and learning how to learn. Employers have an important role to play, through providing work experience and training, and in assisting institutions to embed these skills into their programmes. We further believe that these will build upon the five core skills attained as part of current Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) qualifications and the Higher Still reforms.

A key recommendation of the National Committee is that all taught programmes should be described by a developed 'programme specification' which identifies the intended outcomes of all programmes of study in terms of knowledge, key skills, cognitive skills and subject specific skills. The development of such a specification will provide institutions in Scotland with an opportunity to define new options for students and will also encourage the inclusion of work experience, where appropriate, as a means of attaining some of these skills. Most importantly, the specification will provide potential students with clear information of the programmes on offer so that they can make the right decisions about what to study in higher education.

Scottish Bachelors degree
We are recommending that the framework of qualifications should include a Bachelors degree option. Such a qualification would comprise 360 credit points, attained by study at levels H1 through to H3 in our framework for, normally, three years full-time, or an equivalent period of study part-time. It must be academically rigorous and attractive to both students and employers. Such a qualification might better meet the needs of a proportion of students and employers than existing qualifications. In particular, we are convinced that the new-style Bachelors degrees might be a more suitable initial programme for many students than a more specialised discipline-based programme. Providing a new more broadly-based range of programmes at this level they will suit a variety of needs and interests of both employers and an increasingly diverse student population. We are encouraged by reports from institutions which are already introducing Bachelors-type degrees, that employers they have consulted have viewed such developments favourably.40 Subsequent progress to programmes leading to honours and higher honours, at levels H4 and H5 and beyond, should be integral to this development.

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.

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.

Honours degrees
There will always be a strong demand from a significant proportion of students for the in-depth, specialised, academically rigorous study which honours affords.

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.

Staged completion
We believe firmly that all students should be encouraged to study to their full potential. This demands that the option of credit for staged completion and re-entry should be explicitly available to students in the form of certificates and diplomas of higher education for the early years and Bachelors and honours for the later years.

General implications
When our proposed qualifications framework is developed, we envisage that the system will re-orientate more around the Bachelors degree and away from the present 70 per cent honours: 30 per cent ordinary/general pattern. Although we hope that the new qualifications will offer greater and later choice to students, with no requirement to specify their ultimate qualification aim when they enter the system, we anticipate, as a general rule, that more students will choose to exit with the new-style Scottish Bachelors degree. Of those students who have made an early choice, we expect that more will consider the Bachelors option. Many others, perhaps particularly those who plan to dip in and out of the system, will not choose initially to aim explicitly for any particular final qualification.

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.

Recommendation 2
We recommend to all higher education institutions that 360-credit point Bachelors degrees should become more widely available and that they should begin to develop or extend their provision in this area, with the support and assistance of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

Recommendation 3
We recommend to higher education institutions that they should develop wider and more diverse programmes at honours level.

Recommendation 4
We recommend to professional bodies and institutions that they should together formally consider how their requirements could be embedded within the qualifications framework, in discussion with the Quality Assurance Agency and the Scottish Qualifications Authority as appropriate.

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