Scotland’s higher education system is well known for its breadth and quality. But its most distinctive feature is barely known outside the UK, and this is the number of students who enrol on short cycle qualifications in non-university institutions.
Around one-third of full-time students at undergraduate level in Scotland enrol on a Higher National Certificate or Higher National Diploma at a college. The proportion is even higher among part-time students, a majority of whom take a Higher National at a college. This is much higher than in most other OECD countries, even those – like England – where government has actively encouraged short cycle degrees.
Under the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, an HNC is deemed the equivalent of a first year degree course, while an HND equals the first two years of a degree. In Scotland, where most school-leavers enter higher education at 17, most bachelors’ degrees last four years. And many students do in fact ‘cash in’ their HNCs and HNDs, and enter university to complete a bachelors’ degree.
In general terms, it looks as though this distinctive feature of Scottish higher education is a success. Jim Gallacher’s research has shown that short cycle HNCs and HNDs are attractive to non-traditional students, while the part-time routes provide a progression route for lifelong learners. Anne Gasteen and John Houston have shown that people with an HNC or HND earn higher salaries than those with lower qualifications. So these qualifications are valued by employers as well as their holders.
However, while the same body – the Scottish Funding Council – deals with both colleges and universities, it treats them differently. At present, according to the Herald, SFC pays colleges £1285 a year for students on HE courses, compared to £1820 for a university student.
Can this discrepancy be justified? Some members of the Scottish Parliament clearly think not. At a recent meeting of the Education and Culture Committee, MSPs pressed some of the expert witnesses, including Jim Gallacher, for their views on the funding discrepancy. I suspect that some of these MSPs will now pursue the issue with more vigour in the future.
It’s easy to imagine how the universities might try to argue their case. One line of argument, for example, would be to claim that their costs are higher because the quality of teaching is higher. They could underpin this claim by noting that university lecturers come into the classroom fresh from their cutting edge research, and are often qualified to doctoral level in their discipline.
There are two main problems with this argument. First, there isn’t much evidence to support the view that university teaching really is of better quality, or even that it is much influenced by leading edge research. Worse, the sector’s leaders have shown remarkably little interest in investigating the relationships between research and teaching. On the other hand, journalists are showing an increasing interest in rumours of university lecturers who avoid students in order to concentrate on research.
The second problem is that if the quality is different, then surely the two types of higher education should be differently rated in the SCQF? But opening up that question would quickly undermine the silent and largely tacit consensus on which the whole SCQF is based.
Another possible response is that the Herald is not comparing like with like. The average cost of a university undergraduate is much higher than a college diplomate because they are taking different subjects: an HNC in early childhood is cheaper to teach than a bachelor’s course in building design or nuclear physics. But this only works for obvious mismatches; what is less clear is why it costs so much more to teach first year accountancy or marketing in a university than in a college.
This is likely to be fiercely contested. There is no obvious economic or social policy justification for reducing college teaching budgets (by 16%) while keeping university teaching budgets at their present level. Of course, universities tend to get a better press than colleges, and are far better at lobbying; they are probably also more popular among the electorate. And the Scottish Government clearly believes it has a winning policy on tuition fees.
So Scotland’s colleges may well lose this battle. Of course, if the universities want to come out of the debate with any dignity, and not just a result, they would be wise to think hard about the evidence needed to buttress their case. Meanwhile, policy makers elsewhere will have cause to reflect on the challenges they face if they are to grow the share of short cycle higher education in their own system.