Bridging the gap: an alternative pathway to studying engineering at university

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Dr Gordon Flockhart

College to university articulation is an important learner pathway, helping to widen access and to support increased social mobility.

Approximately twice as many students enter university via college as compared to direct entry for students from the most deprived quintile of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). Ideally, we want to avoid duplication of learning at the same level and universities should recognise and award credit for prior learning.

Articulation with Advanced Standing is the gold standard, but it is not the default, and entry to engineering higher education is becoming more challenging with higher entry tariffs. In my experience at the University of Strathclyde, a standard SQA Higher National Certificate (HNC) in engineering does not adequately prepare a student to directly enter year two or a student with an SQA Higher National Diploma (HND) to enter year three of Strathclyde’s degree programmes. Our standard admissions criteria for year one would mean these students have to repeat a level of learning.

Is this advantageous to the learner? Does it allow them to consolidate their knowledge and also adapt to university study? Is this the best approach? Many academics would argue it is and stick to the traditional entry pathways. However, there is another way for learners to enter the higher education system with the requisite knowledge and experience – through college-university collaboration.

The Engineering Academy at the University of Strathclyde was established in 2013 to widen access to engineering. Three custom pathways were developed through curriculum mapping and alignment with the SQA’s HNC qualifications to allow progression to a range of engineering degrees through six partner colleges and the Scottish Wider Access Programme. This model enhanced the HNC provision at college, incorporated practical engineering skills and provided bespoke transition activities delivered at university.

Students are registered from year one with the university and undertake both college and university activities and, subject to meeting the required academic criteria, progress to year two* of their chosen degree programme (*year one in biomedical engineering – limited by
HNC curriculum). This aims to build confidence and a sense of belonging in the learners which is important for successful transition.

This partnership working model brings together the strengths of the different learning approaches in college and university, with the aim of improving student outcomes through supportive learning and developing independent study skills. University-college collaboration has been key to the success of this model, for example through:

  • discipline- specific working groups bringing college and university staff together to review and
    evolve the curricula;
  • jointly developed activities delivered at university which are then used as instruments for college
    assessment; and
  • more recently, in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, good practice was shared across
    college partners to address changes in SQA assessment criteria.

This partnership working model brings together the strengths of the different learning approaches in college and university, with the aim of improving student outcomes through supportive learning and developing independent study skills.

gordon flockhart

College-university collaboration is also important in the development of SQA’s next generation Higher National awards to ensure they improve articulation pathways but also meet the needs of industry and apprenticeships.

Can colleges and universities work together to eliminate repeat learning at the same level and make articulation with Advanced Standing the new normal? Both sectors will certainly need to adapt and focus on the learner’s needs and educational journey.

Dr Gordon Flockhart is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Strathclyde and the Academic Director the Faculty of Engineering’s Engineering Academy. The Engineering Academy is an alternative pathway in to university in partnership with further education colleges.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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