Improving articulation between Scottish colleges and universities

Professor Nigel Seaton is the Principal of Abertay University and Co-Convener of the National Articulation Forum. He introduces a new report by the Forum which sets a series of recommendations to make it easier for students to progress from college to university.

The National Articulation Forum had as its objective to work out how to improve articulation – that is, progression with full academic credit – from college to university in Scotland. This was a joint effort by Universities Scotland and Colleges Scotland, supported by the Scottish Funding Council, and with extensive involvement of students. I co-chaired the Forum with Liz McIntyre, Principal of North East Scotland College and, after she retired, with Lydia Rohmer, Principal of West Highland College.

At present, many students repeat academic levels in moving from college to university. This is costly from the point of view of the learner, in both time and money, and an inefficient use of public funds. Articulation has a particularly important role to play in promoting social mobility, as college students in Scotland are disproportionately from less prosperous backgrounds.

In the course of our work, we learnt of a very rich set of approaches to articulation, with colleges and universities across Scotland thinking imaginatively about ways to make articulation work better. Progress is being made, and in the Forum we realised early on that our challenge was not come up with new ways to ‘do articulation’ but rather to work out how to accelerate progress.

In our report, we make a number of  recommendations in the areas of subject alignment, advice to students, transition support, and sharing good practice. These recommendations are for universities and colleges, and for the Scottish Government and its agencies. The challenge is a substantial and complex one, and all these actors have a critical role to play.

How quickly can we move? Will there be continuing, marginal changes, with perhaps a slight acceleration of the current rate of progress? Or is there an opportunity to get some serious momentum behind improvement in articulation? What would it take to do the latter?

Based on what I have learnt in co-chairing the Forum, and on my own experience as Principal of Abertay University, I think two factors are critical if we are to achieve real momentum.

Firstly, we need to take a more integrated approach to designing and delivering college and university curricula. This involves colleges and universities working in close partnership. The Scottish Qualifications Authority also has a critical role, in supporting the design and delivery of college curricula that support articulation as well as maintaining the value of HN qualifications in their own right. And it’s not just about the curriculum. We know that students progressing from college to university often encounter a serious clash of learning styles as they make the transition. Progress in this area will require overcoming organisational and bureaucratic barriers in the interests of the students, and will involve making compromises.

To give an example from my own institution, Abertay University, about one-third of all our incoming undergraduates articulate with full credit from college, representing a significant increase over recent years. A critical element in our approach is to treat admission from our partner colleges – Dundee & Angus College and Fife College – as progression, as if from one year at university to another; the UCAS application is a formality. We also work with students both before and after the transition to provide additional material, for example in mathematics, and to help them adapt to different learning styles.

To explore for a moment how far one could go with integrated curricula, what would a four-year degree look like with the HNC and HND as integral exit qualifications along a student’s trajectory towards a degree? What would be the design principles, and the possible trade-offs that might allow this to happen?  How would it best be delivered?

Secondly, we need to ‘normalise’ progression to university from college with full credit, just as students progress from school with full credit. This is not to say that articulation should necessarily be possible in all subjects at all universities, but the consideration of articulation routes, the support needs of articulating students, the active recruitment of students from college, and so on, should be seen as a mainstream activity – an organic part of planning processes, committee meetings and tea-room discussions at all Scottish universities. This will create an environment – and in due course foster a culture – in which barriers to articulation are challenged when they are encountered and where as many students are possible are able to make a smooth transition from college to university.

Finally, I would like to reflect on fact that the report is being issued during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we are acutely aware of both the fragility of human life and of the challenges society will face in the aftermath. It is surely more important than ever to help our students to realise their potential in a way that values their time and removes barriers to their success while making efficient use of resources.