Laying the foundations for fair access: annual report 2017 from the Commissioner for Fair Access

This is the first annual report from the Commissioner for Fair Access, covering the wider context of access to higher education in Scotland.

Chapter 5: Articulation and Flexible Pathways

Articulation, a clumsy word with little currency outside education, is usually defined in narrow terms as progression between HNs and degrees and, in particular, the extent to which HN students are awarded advanced standing. However, this is only one element in what should be a much broader context of flexible learner pathways based on the transferability and portability of credit. The work currently being undertaken by the Scottish Government on the Learner Journey highlights this wider context. Articulation (or whatever more accessible and comprehensible term is preferred), therefore, is not a peripheral or technical issue. It goes to the heart of how a dynamic tertiary education system should operate, in which learner needs not narrow institutional interests are the driving force. Articulation is the second topic covered in the recent US report on widening access.

In the context of fair access this wider perspective is particularly relevant. Smoother and more complete HN-degree articulation, in and of of itself, does not directly promote fairer access (because not all HN students come from more deprived backgrounds, although the data suggest that relatively more of them do than is the case with direct-entry degree students). But a much more flexible system of learner pathways across tertiary education would make a major contribution to fairer access, which was emphasised in the previous section on the role of colleges (and is the subject of a recommendation made at the end of this report).

Higher Nationals and Degrees

HNs are long-standing and respected higher education qualifications. The starting point, therefore, should be that students who have successfully completed an HN and wish to progress onto a degree course should be admitted to the second year (following a HNC) or third year (following a HND). Currently less than half receive full credit, and 40 per cent progress to university without any credit at all. There are significant subject variations. Of the subject areas where a substantial volume of articulation currently takes place, business and management has the best record (around three quarters get full credit), and subjects allied to medicine have the worst (less than one sixth) (Chart 9).

Chart 9: Percentage of articulating students entering university with Advanced Standing and Advanced Progression, subjects where more than 250 students articulated, 2014/15

Source: Scottish Funding Council

Chart 9: Percentage of articulating students entering university with Advanced Standing and Advanced Progression, subjects where more than 250 students articulated, 2014/15

In Scotland, only in the University of Highlands and Islands is that principle of full and seamless progression fully accepted, although many HN students are admitted into the second or third year of degree courses in most post-1992 universities and in some pre-1992 universities. However, other pre-1992 universities HN students are typically allowed only limited, if any, credit for the years they have already studied in higher education, and often on strict conditions. As a result only small numbers of HN students are admitted by the institutions that enrol the majority of students in the Scottish university sector, although there are some honourable exceptions. The overall effect is that half of HN students who progress are only admitted to the first year - in effect, they have to start from the beginning - and more than three quarters of articulation is done by six universities (including UHI and the Open University). The SFC has indicated that 75 per cent of HN students who progress to degrees should receive full credit. To achieve even this, a step-change will be needed.

The current position is unacceptable for four reasons:

1. It has led to a sub-optimal use of public funding. Without this failure in articulation additional funded places could have been created without any additional cost, which might have helped to address some of the fears that the drive to recruit more SIMD20 students within a capped number of places might lead to other students being displaced;

2. It is unfair to progressing students. They are obliged to extend the time they take to pass through higher education, increasing the financial burden in terms of living expenses and income foregone. This is likely to increase drop-out, as well as delaying entry into the labour market;

3. The reluctance to give HN students fair credit tends to suggest that vocational qualifications are, in some key respects, inferior to academic qualifications. The clear implication is that HN students have a number of deficits that must be addressed before they can embark on full-blown degree-level education;

4. The great majority of HN students who progress to degrees being confined to post-1992 universities. In effect, although this may not be the intention, they are largely excluded from the universities with the greatest academic (and social) prestige, whose graduates have greater opportunities in the job market.

The challenge is how to get from where the system is now, which is clearly unacceptable, to where it should be, a default position in which all (not just some) universities admit the bulk of HN students with full-credit when they transfer onto a degree course (and this is recognised as the default position to which only a limited number of, fully justified, exceptions can be accepted). There are substantial obstacles to making this shift.

  • One is to address the argument that HNs and degrees have radically different 'learning cultures'. These differences, where they exist, must be spelt out in detail subject-by-subject and courses-by course rather than continue to be described in general terms, often with a reference to different forms of assessment, although research has also highlighted that HN students have sometimes received more intensive support than would be normal in universities (this difference has sometimes been labelled, perhaps unfairly, 'spoon-feeding'). If the argument about different 'learning cultures' is not critically examined, HN students will continue to suffer discrimination by being given limited credit or being required to follow what are, in effect, bridging programmes. A more hopeful sign is that some universities are working with partner colleges to ensure that HNs contain elements in their curriculum that address some of these concerns about the transition difficulties that some HN students may face. The proposal to establish an Articulation Forum made in the US report on widening access could provide a place in which these various issues can be more systemically addressed and good practice shared. But any changes should not be allowed to compromise the value of HNs as free-standing higher education qualifications.
  • The second is the risk that universities that admit small numbers of articulating students will admit even fewer students, despite the key recommendation on articulation in the US report on widening access. This recommendation was that every university should undertake a 'fundamental review' of its capacity to increase full-credit articulation by August 2018, which will necessarily involve partner colleges. The report asks universities to consider three issues: (i) how they increase the number of articulating students; (ii) how the proportion receiving full credit can be increased; and (iii) whether new articulation routes can be established in new subject areas. If this recommendation is taken seriously, it has the potential to produce the kind of step-change that is needed. Whether this can be achieved through voluntary effort remains to be seen. The alternative would be to establish institution-specific targets (i) based on an agreed uplift in their current number of articulating students; and (ii) increasing the proportion with full credit. This issue is addressed in a recommendation made in the final section of this report.

Other forms of articulation

The US report recognises that HN-to-degree is not the only form of articulation. It recommends that the proposed National Articulation Forum should consider other models of articulation using other qualifications such as Advanced Highers, apprenticeships and other forms of sub-degree provision. It is important that this work is not seen as a sideshow. The ambition should be not simply to ease progression between HNs and degrees but to create a flexible network of learner pathways worthy of a 21st-century tertiary education system (including higher education in colleges and universities).

New models of delivery

Considerable progress has already been made in the development of new kinds of higher education provision, notably modern and graduate apprenticeships. Although at present these new routes into and through higher education are relatively small-scale, they are certain to grow in importance. By 2030, the year in which the final target of 20 per cent of entrants coming from SIMD20 areas adopted by the Scottish Government is due to be achieved, the higher education landscape could look very different. It would also be a mistake to assume that these new forms of higher education will be concentrated in colleges and post-1992 universities, leaving elite universities relatively unaffected. Already some more research-intensive universities have developed graduate apprenticeship pathways. There is also evidence that graduate apprenticeships leading into high-pay jobs in elite professions could be attractive to high-flying students. The development of virtual learning platforms and packages exemplified by the growth of massive online open courses ( MOOCs) will be another component of these more open and diverse higher education systems, although their current impact is still limited. Whatever shape this new higher education landscape takes, it will be more necessary than ever to create flexible pathways between different forms of provision.

Schools and universities

More controversial is any suggestion of potential overlaps or redundancy between the last year of secondary education and first year of higher education, because this is seen as a threat to the four-year degree. Such fears can be dismissed: a four-year undergraduate degree is the international standard, and three-year degrees are exceptional. In the light of the explosion of scientific knowledge and increasing skill demands, as well as the multiple goals, social, cultural, economic and educational, universities have embraced, a four-year undergraduate degree cannot be regarded as excessive.

However, this does not mean that Scotland can be totally exempt from the pressure to reduce course length in the interests of economy and efficiency. On several occasions in recent years the UK Government has launched initiatives to promote accelerated degrees in England, despite the shorter three-year undergraduate degree pattern south of the Border. In Germany, and several other European countries, one of the advantages of the Bologna process was that it opened the way to reduce average course lengths.

So it is important that good use is made of the current pattern of upper secondary and university education in Scotland. Over the last two generations that pattern has changed:

  • First, the majority of Scottish secondary school students now stay on for a sixth year, and many take Advanced Higher, and enter higher education at the same age and with similar qualifications as their English and Welsh peers. Fewer than one-in-ten now enters higher education from S5, and just over one per cent are 17 or younger;
  • Secondly, ordinary degrees have become relatively uncommon except as safety-net qualifications (and in some subjects such as nursing). Most Scottish university students are on honours degree courses, again a significant shift.

It is not clear these changes have been reflected as much as they should have been in rethinking the pattern of the first-year of undergraduate education. In Scotland, and the UK generally, there is much less focus on the first-year experience than in the United States. For example, there might be scope for treating bridging programmes, summer schools and the first-year as the initial preparatory stage of a university education within the context of a four-year degree. Being able to demonstrate that the four-year degree was more access friendly than a three-year degree would offer a convincing defence against future attack on the four-year degree.

As a result some students may be 'coasting' through S6, or not be sufficiently challenged in their first undergraduate year. In a minority of cases able students with Advanced Higher, and other evidence of academic maturity, might be able to enter university with some form of advanced standing. At present the numbers are tiny - only 1.4 per cent of S6 leavers with Advanced Highers are admitted straight into the second year. There must be scope for increasing that number without compromising the principle of a four-year degree. There may also be opportunities for co-delivery of some S6 and first-year courses, which would again ease the transition from school to university.

From the perspective of fair access this could have the advantage of freeing up additional funded places, as well as being a component of the more flexible system of learner pathways - in the same way that fuller articulation between HNs and degrees would (two places for HND students entering the third year of a degree programme could be funded for every one place for a four-year degree student who progressed without any credit after completing an HND). This would lead, not only to an efficiency gain, but would also increase the number of students who could be funded and reduce the risk of displacement.


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