Toward a fully coherent education system

Tertiary Education Futures Blogs
Publication Date
09/09/2021
Wes Mannion wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera
Professor Paul Hagan (left) and Rob Wallen (right)

Arguably, a perfect education and training system is one that allows each individual to fulfil his/her/their potential at any stage of life, and to continue to develop skills and understanding throughout life – for the betterment and fulfilment of the individual and for the stability and enrichment of society.

If this is to be achieved it requires:

  • easy and equitable access to appropriate educational opportunity;
  • a recognition of the value of all different types of skills and knowledge;
  • achieving parity of esteem for skills and knowledge and recognising the relationships between them;
  • providing “transferable” recognition of all types of acquired skills and knowledge in the form of certification that has credibility and acceptability in all types of institutions;
  • recognising that learning takes place in all sorts of contexts – including at work as well as in a “classroom”;
  • recognising that different people develop a desire to learn at different stages in their lives (not everyone is hungry to learn in adolescence but may become so at later stages of life or when their circumstances change – as we have seen with an increased demand for online upskilling and re-skilling courses during the enforced lockdowns of the pandemic) and that the achievements are of equal value at whatever stage of life they happen; and
  • recognising that learning acquired informally – through accumulated experience as well as through structured designed programmes – can be of equal value and effectiveness to that acquired in a classroom or lecture or training room. (Indeed, the autodidact may sometimes, in some subject areas, be better than the graduate.)

In turn, these things require:

  • a formal structure for identifying how different types of skills and knowledge acquired in different contexts can link up with each other; and
  • an understanding of how an individual’s learning pathway can be constructed to include learning and qualifications from different types of institutions and environments.

With the flexibility that this requires comes the complexity and the possibility of confusion and failure caused by good intentions that are not grounded in clear understanding.

What is required is a framework of levels and credit values to provide a clear understanding of the relative demands of different types of learning.

The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) does that. It is arguably the best such framework in the world in that it covers all types of learning – work-based learning as well as school, college and university qualifications – it is clear, and it is rigorously policed to ensure the integrity of the system as a whole.

In this basic form, it does not in itself immediately clarify the possible learning routes for an individual. It shows how different types of qualifications relate to each other in terms of the level of demand, but it does not mean that any person who has achieved anything at, say, level 7 should then automatically progress to anything else at level 8. There is more to the situation than level and volume of learning: there are the issues of the type/scope of content, the pedagogy and assessment methods used and the culture within which learning was acquired.

This applies in all circumstances but in particular in the case of constructing different pathways to achieving a degree-level qualification. A student who has achieved a level 8 HND qualification at a college may have achieved in theory the same “level” of learning as someone who has completed a level 8 second year of university study in the same subject – but it is not a given that that person can necessarily transfer from the HND directly to year three of any degree in any institution.

To ensure that someone can progress seamlessly and successfully from an HND (level 8) to the third year of a degree programme (level 9) requires:

  • a re-examination of course content of the HND and degree and adjustments to achieve a close alignment;
  • compatible delivery methods in the college and the university;
  • compatible assessment methodologies on the HND and degree programmes; and
  • compatible organisational cultures of the college and the university.

It also ideally involves:

  • opportunities for shared/swapped staffing between the university and the college; and
  • opportunities for college HND students to visit the university while they are studying at college.

These things require:

  • buy-in and commitment from the Principal/Chief Executive, senior management team and faculty staff at all levels of each institution, based on mutual respect for each other’s needs and rights as independent institutions;
  • a focus on collaboration, not competition, rooted in robust bilateral agreements and joint working, built up over time and based on honesty, openness and trust; and
  • a focus not on institutions but on how the whole system serves the needs of the learner, regardless of their life stage and educational aspirations.

This is easiest to achieve where there is a bilateral relationship between two institutions built up over time. If a college, for example, tries to build relationships with too many universities, it is likely that the clarity achieved in a single bilateral relationship may be lost. That does, in turn, imply that progression from a college’s HND programme to a degree programme may be most effectively established if there is only one receiving university.

It may also require, or at least lead to, a reconsideration of the funding arrangements for different types of institutions jointly involved in the education of students working towards the same qualification but following different pathways. And it requires looking beyond the confines of the university and the college to consider the wider context – school provision and in some cases work-based provision.

In some parts of Scotland, these things exist already.

The relationships built up in northeast Scotland, based primarily on the strong relationship between Robert Gordon University (RGU) and North East Scotland College (NESCol), provide an example.

The North East Scotland Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Pathways publication illustrates the many curriculum pathway maps built up in the northeast region, showing the different ways of progressing from school to employment in different subject areas.

The maps do not record a theoretical situation but the actual day-to-day reality of learner journeys on these pathways. For example, hundreds of students each year progress from an HND programme at NESCol to the third year of a degree programme at RGU across a wide range of subjects; and they do so not through special pleading but as a matter of right, a right conferred on the day they join an HND programme at NESCol.

It should be noted that while RGU and NESCol are the essential parts of all of these “maps”, they also show the links to the school system and the role that the other university based in the northeast (the University of Aberdeen) plays – showing that ancient universities, as well as the post-1992 universities, can have a role in the process if they choose.

These “maps” are of course in themselves quite complex and would not necessarily be immediately accessible to a young person in, say, the fourth year at school or to an adult returner to education. However, they help ensure that learners and those advising and supporting them – parents, carers, teachers, careers advisers, partners, etc – can see clearly the different options, and they provide comfort that a particular choice leads to further opportunity rather than to a dead end.

The ideal is that any relevant acquired knowledge and skill should be recognised as a building block to some other qualification in the same or related subject/vocational area, and not rejected through preconceived views, prejudice or snobbery. Society holds in high esteem medical professionals who are dependent on a wide range of technical skills acquired during their training, while undervaluing the advanced technical skills of other professionals like mechanical engineers and plumbers.

There should, ideally, be a progression pathway in all “subjects” and for all occupations. For example, a trade qualification in construction (such as joinery or electrical installation) should be recognised as being of value towards a civil engineering qualification, or the chemistry and physiology knowledge acquired during a beauty therapy course should be recognised as being of relevance towards a nursing qualification – although the amount of “credit” they would be awarded towards the degree qualification may, of course, not be great.

These detailed regional curriculum maps do not exist everywhere. In other parts of Scotland there is not the same comprehensive and clear set of curriculum maps. In England, the dynamics of the system are more complex due to the way the school and college systems have been allowed to develop, and where – as a result – schools and colleges are in more direct competition than in Scotland. South of the border, colleges have been encouraged to encroach on the space of universities; and in that context, anything like the same level of clarity is unlikely to be achieved.

There is much to commend about the Scottish education system, but few would argue that it is a perfect education and training system. What might be done to improve it?

In 2018, after extensive consultation, the Scottish Government published their report on The 15-24 Learner Journey Review. The review concluded that if we want an improved, more coherent learner journey post-15, then we need to focus on advice and system coherence and prioritise:

  1. Information, advice and support: aimed at providing greater personalisation and making it easier for young people to understand their learning and career choices at the earliest stage, and providing long-term, person-centred support for the young people who need this most.
  2. Provision: to deliver real choice by broadening our approach to education and reframing our offer, doing more for those who get the least out of the system and ensuring all young people have access to the high-level work-based skills Scotland’s economy needs.
  3. Alignment: providing system purpose to make the best use of our four-year degree to give greater flexibility for more learners to move from S5 to year one of a degree; more from S6 to year 2; and more from college into years 2 and 3 of a degree, where this is appropriate.
  4. Leadership: providing system vision by building collective leadership across the education and skills system.
  5. Performance: providing system success, so that we can assess how well our education and skills system is performing.

Work is underway on all of these priorities but the extent of buy-in to the delivery of these priorities, and their consequent impact on opportunities for learners, varies across the country.

In our view, the SCQF provides a powerful tool that can support further efforts to streamline the 15-24+ learner journey.

The NESCol-RGU collaboration provides a tried and tested and relatively stable model for successful integration of provision between a college and a university. Learners are guided along a pathway with exit points that allow each and every one of them to acquire the skills and knowledge that they need to reach their full potential in their career or in wider society.

If implemented fully, the findings of The 15-24 Learner Journey Review would take us a significant way towards establishing parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications and the delivery of an effective, inclusive and genuinely integrated tertiary education system in Scotland.

Each and every school, college, university and employer in Scotland can play a role in delivering a new future for education and skills provision in Scotland.

We are not proposing a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The diversity of our institutions means that there is an opportunity for each of them to tailor their contribution to tertiary delivery that fits with their vision and mission and their current contributions to health and wellbeing and the economic and cultural development of the country. 

However, there should be an expectation – indeed, we believe a requirement – that all of our FE and HE institutions do contribute and work with schools and employers to make the seamless learner journey a reality.

The response to the pandemic has shown the capacity of our sectors and systems to adapt at pace. The actions to deliver the recovery from the pandemic need also to be delivered at pace.

An area where we could move quickly is in targeted, regional implementation of ‘tertiary collaborations’ similar to the NESCol-RGU model, by incentivising institutions to move towards closer integration of their provision across a wide range of disciplines.

The NESCol-RGU model is built on mutual respect, trust and confidence and took time to develop. Is more rapid implementation of this model possible? We believe it is.

What will it take? A willingness to collaborate – something we have a successful track record of in Scotland, as seen in research pooling, Innovation Centres, and the NESCol-RGU example – and new investment to allow the redesign and integration of current provision across participating colleges and universities.

How will we measure success? An increase in the number of students entering universities in the third year and successfully achieving their degree qualification – and with it an acceleration in the process of widening opportunities for those from less affluent homes, who are currently less likely to achieve the Highers needed for university entry while they are at school.

A further way in which the Scottish system of education and training could develop would be to fully integrate work-based learning and training with the provision and qualifications offered by colleges and universities.

This work has already started, with Modern Apprenticeships (at SCQF levels 5, 6 and 7) involving a mix of work-based and college-based learning now well-established in many vocational areas.

More recently, school-based Foundation Apprenticeships, with an element of work-based learning alongside school-based learning, have been introduced to provide an introduction to more practical skills-based vocational learning, which may then ease the transition into a Modern Apprenticeship.

However, establishing how a Modern Apprenticeship qualification might be given full credit towards further study at a university is more difficult, as there is a disjunction in content and in the mode of learning.

However, the recent development of apprenticeship models at higher SCQF levels – Higher and Graduate Apprenticeships – has shown how a model of learning that integrates work-based learning with university-based study is possible at SCQF levels 8, 9 and 10 and potentially offers progression for those who have achieved a Modern Apprenticeship as well as for those who move into employment directly after achieving their Highers.

The relatively rapid development and implementation of Graduate Apprenticeships – an important addition to the apprenticeships family – has provided an additional example of how fast the sector can adapt to address a national need. There is more to be done to add a skills and knowledge pathway from Foundation to Graduate Apprenticeships, and to facilitate the possibility that moving from work-based apprenticeship-type models back into more traditional forms of study becomes normalised as part of the system.

Currently, there are several agencies involved in the funding and oversight of different parts of the system – including Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Funding Council, the Quality Assurance Agency (Scotland), Education Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

In the context of further developing the integration of the different parts of the system, it will be important to reconsider the relationship between the various agencies and their respective responsibilities, to ensure that they collectively provide the best framework for promoting an integrated approach education and training system. Equally, consideration might be given to how these agencies relate to other NDPBs that support business, industry and innovation, since education and training are critical to successful business growth and enterprise.

Scotland Can Do sets out a series of expectations that are relevant in this context. They include:

  • increasing collaboration is key to success;
  • the public sector itself should be a role model and creator or early adopter of best practice; and
  • Scottish Government can use policy and financial levers to assist delivery.

The ideal is that any relevant acquired knowledge and skill should be recognised as a building block to some other qualification in the same or related subject/vocational area, and not rejected through preconceived views, prejudice or snobbery.

Paul hagan and rob wallen

Work is currently being undertaken by the Scottish Government to consider the roles of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland in the delivery of school-based learning and qualifications. Discussions in the past have considered the respective roles and responsibilities of SDS and SFC. Such discussions are beneficial if they create a framework of agencies that can:

  • ensure a unified, efficient and effective system for the delivery of all levels and types of post-15 education provision for Scotland;
  • advocate for appropriate levels of funding and distribute this funding to ensure the stability of the education system in Scotland;
  • safeguard the interests of the learner;
  • vigorously promote fair access and inclusion for all of Scotland’s people, and monitor progress and act when necessary;
  • help remove artificial distinctions between vocational and academic training, ensuring the learner journey allows for both, as and when appropriate for any individual;
  • work with business and industry to maintain the development of a highly-skilled workforce, one able to support business and industry in Scotland and equipped to compete internationally for employment opportunities; and
  • monitor the quality of education provision in Scotland and work with stakeholders to secure improvement.

If the integration of school, college and university and work-based provision into coherent flexible pathways becomes fully realised, then ‘opportunities for all’ can become a reality rather than an aspiration, and true parity of esteem between different types of abilities, knowledge and skills and between different types of learning experiences may be achievable – to the benefit of individual citizens and the economy and society of Scotland.


Professor Paul Hagan is the Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Hull. Previously he was Vice-Principal (Research) and Deputy Principal at Robert Gordon University. Prior to that, he was Director of Research and Innovation at the Scottish Further and Higher Education Council. Paul spent twenty years in various roles at the University of Glasgow as Head of the Division of Infection and Immunity and then Dean of the Faculty of Biomedical and Life Sciences.

Rob Wallen is currently independent Chair of the SCQF Partnership Board, and a member of the Board of the National Library of Scotland. From 1976-1990, Rob worked in higher education, secondary education and further education in Egypt, England and China. From 1991 he worked at Aberdeen College (now North-East Scotland College), becoming Principal in 2009 and retiring in 2016. 

This blog was published as part of our Tertiary Education Futures project

Discover the Tertiary Education Futures project