Positive progression: The future of college to university pathways

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Achievement under pressure

August 2020 has been an exam results season like no other, with the COVID-19 pandemic laying the groundwork for considerable challenges around final awards for pupils.

These difficulties have shone a light on the pressure many pupils face to make the grades to secure university places.

The National Articulation Forum’s report on pathways from college to university was published last week. Its recommendations set out ways to develop this important learning route, normalise its use and open up opportunities to thousands of learners.  

This blog looks at the report recommendations and the role articulation may play post COVID-19.

How articulation works

Articulation is the progression of learners from a Higher National (HN) qualification at college level into second or third year of university in certain subjects where agreements are in place. Full credit articulation with a Higher National Certificate (HNC) sees learners move into second year university, while a Higher National Diploma (HND) enables progression straight into third year.

It is important to state that college HNCs and HNDs are respected qualifications in their own right. But, for many learners, they are also important building blocks opening up opportunities for further study.

Articulation has a clear role to play in widening access to university for learners from the least well-off backgrounds. In 2017-18, over 4,000 students articulated with full credit and 26% of all entrants studying their first university degree arrived at university via completion of an HND or HND.

Commission on Widening Access recognition

The 2014-15 Programme for Government set out the ambition to widen access to university, stating:

“A child born today in one of our most deprived communities should have no lesser chance of entering higher education than a child born in one of our least deprived.”

To advise on the steps needed to achieve this, the Commission on Widening Access (COWA) was set up, chaired by Dame Ruth Silver.

COWA’s final report recognised articulation as:

“a distinctive and much admired feature of Scottish post-16 education”.

Recommendations 8, 9 and 10 called for articulation links between colleges and universities to be expanded to offer learners alternative routes into university. As the COWA report states:

 “Most standard routes into university depend upon achieving good results at Higher…But there is a significant cohort of disadvantaged learners who leave school with few, if any, formal qualifications. For these learners, articulation is a crucial alternative route into university.”

Since then, the Commissioner for Fair Access – a role created in response to COWA recommendation 1 – has continued to highlight the important role articulation – particularly with full credit – can play in widening access to university. The Commissioner’s latest annual report, published in June this year, advocates placing: “…relentless emphasis on raising consciousness – and conscience? – within the sector”.

Scaling up articulation

The National Articulation Forum was set up in 2018 as a joint venture between Universities Scotland and Colleges Scotland to look at how more students can benefit from full credit articulation. Forum members were keen to reflect student experience and almost 100 students took part in 13 focus groups held across Scotland.  

Findings show work to expand the current offer of articulation pathways and subjects is underway across the country and all colleges and universities are taking part at some level. Forum co-chair and Principal of Abertay University Nigel Seaton states:

“[Forum members] realised early on that our challenge was not to come up with new ways to ‘do articulation’, but rather to work out how to accelerate progress.”

The Forum recommends qualifications such as Foundation Apprenticeships should be included in a revised definition of articulation to ensure more equal consideration of a student’s prior learning.

It also highlights the need to include within articulation figures information about students progressing from HN to degree level courses at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). Progression at UHI and SRUC is not currently counted as articulation because both are multi-campus institutions offering college and university level study.

The issue of subject alignment

Students report a generally good subject match between their college courses and the university courses they went on to. Nevertheless, institutions highlight alignment of HN to degree courses as a potential barrier to creating new articulation pathways.

One student taking part in a Forum focus group explains that:

“I would have studied Financial Services, but the HN didn’t link – perhaps if the HND was more flexible with optional courses to filter, this would help decide where you want to go afterwards.”

As the Forum report highlights, the SQA’s planned HN Review provides a means of bringing about further improvement in subject alignment between college and university courses.

The Forum recommends using data on economic skills gaps when developing new articulation pathways and strengthening existing ones. Ring-fencing of degree places is suggested to reassure students looking at articulation are reassured there will be a place for them in second or third year of their chosen course.

Support for transition between college and university

Transition support was highlighted by many students taking part in Forum focus groups. Where strong transition support was received – for example courses in referencing for essay writing and study skills – students highlighted the benefits it had for them moving on to university.

However, the opposite was also true and where students did not feel supported they highlighted this often had a detrimental impact. The Forum recommends good support should be offered to all.

Co-ordination at national level

In many cases, articulation agreements are in place between institutions that are geographically close together and students reported difficulties in finding information about cross-regional pathways.

The Forum suggests the creation of a national map showing all available college to university routes. In addition, the importance of promoting articulation as a pathway is highlighted and that it is incorporated into existing sources such as My World of Work.

Articulation’s role in recovery

Articulation expansion will likely take on a new sense of urgency in the aftermath of COVID-19. As universities look for new ways to deliver learning in the face of a collective deficit predicted by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to be between £450m – £651m in 2020-21 – due in the main to a likely fall in income from international student fees – partnership working becomes an attractive prospect.

The role that streamlined college and university partnerships can play in Scotland’s post-pandemic economic recovery is highlighted in the recent report from the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery, ‘Towards a robust, resilient wellbeing economy for Scotland’.

The report recommends that colleges and universities should be protected from the financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis and: “take decisive steps to align their teaching and learning provision…to meet business and employer needs”.

The Scottish Government’s response to the report indicates closer alignment is not being ruled out. It has also commissioned an SFC review of future provision and funding of colleges and universities, and this is expected to report initial considerations this month.

2020 and beyond: learners at the centre?

Articulation already provides thousands of people each year with an alternative route into university. It has a role in building learner confidence, as one student from Dundee and Angus College told a Forum Focus Group: “I didn’t do well at school but this is showing me I can do this.”

In the years ahead, articulation is likely to expand in prominence as we adapt to life after COVID-19. The National Articulation Forum report finds solid foundations to build on.

However, the delicate balancing act between the needs of learners and the needs of the economy will become more difficult as finances tighten. In the coming weeks, SFC’s review of finances will begin to map out the road ahead.

Lynne Currie, Senior Education Researcher, SPICe and former member of the National Articulation Forum Secretariat in her previous role with Universities Scotland

August 2020