In England, one in three young people is in some form of higher education. In Scotland, the comparable figure is 45 cent. Scotland also has a much higher retention rate for students in higher education. The reasons, according to those running higher education in Scotland, are many, and begin at the earliest level. Scotland has only a handful of public schools and, as a result, overall standards in state education are higher than in England.
Education at all levels is better funded, by about 10 per cent It is also more highly regarded. Some speeches by university vice-chancellors are printed in full in The Scotsman. Education is closely linked to the whole economy.
"Historically, participation rates in higher education have always been high," says Norman Sharp, head of the Scottish Office of the Higher Education Quality Council. "In this country, higher education is not seen as the preserve of the elite - it is open to everyone. The structure for staying on in education is much more flexible and there has always been much more support for wider participation in higher education." In England, the Government has imposed a freeze on the number of students entering higher education. It had set a target of 30 per cent by 2000 but that proportion was reached in 1993. That has meant that huge financial constraints have been placed on many English higher education institutions, which are locked in a battle for more funding with the DFEE. But in Scotland, at the time of consolidation, no restriction was placed initially on the number of higher education students in further education colleges. The participation rate in higher education was already much higher than in England, and the figures soared. And while English universities are funded by the DFEE, which has to fight its corner in the yearly battle with the Treasury, in Scotland higher education institutions are funded directly by the Scottish Office. John Fizer, chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, says: "Traditionally, higher education is funded more generously than in England. The Secretary of State for Scotland takes the decision on what is best for the country as a whole and education is rated very highly in terms of the overall Scottish economy. He can make decisions in the round. I would say Scottish higher education receives around 10 per cent more than English institutions." The whole structure by which students reach higher education is also different in Scotland.Students take "highers" rather than A-levels and they are much more broadly based. Students will take an average of five subjects. They can take these exams while still in the fifth form, although most go on to the sixth form. There is only one year at sixth form but degree courses at Scottish universities take four years rather than three. In the first two years, students typically take a broad range of options before specialising in the third year, called "junior honours", and then completing the degree in the fourth year - "senior honours". "Highers have the advantage over A-levels in that they allow youngsters to cover a breadth of the curriculum," Mr Sharp says. "They don't have to cut themselves off at 14 from whole areas of academic subjects, and it also doesn't mean a two-year commitment at the end of their fourth year." Highers, however, are also undergoing a programme of change, called "Higher Still". The aim is to offer more flexibility through modularisation and to bring them together with vocational qualifications. The change is likely to mean that the Scottish Higher Examination Board and Scotvec, which governs vocational qualifications, will be merged to form a single body called the Scottish Qualifications Authority from next month. As Mr Sharp says, it will help to break down the barriers between academic and vocational qualifications - another important plank in the country's national educational strategy. …