Janet Brown: Ninety years of giving access to better education

Dr Janet Brown is chief executive of the  Scottish Qualifications Authority. Picture: PA
Dr Janet Brown is chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Picture: PA
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THIS year marks the 90th anniversary of Scotland’s first Higher National (HN) qualifications graduates. In 1925, the first HNs, developed in response to a chronic shortage of engineering and technical expertise in post-World War One Scotland, were attained by a small group of just 24 engineers and chemists.

The new qualifications initially received a lukewarm response, much of which was due to the need for students to complete up to eight years of course work and attend classes two or three evenings a week.

As a consequence, it wasn’t until the 1930s and 40s that HNs really began to grow in popularity and credibility. Ninety years on, the aim of the qualifications remains unchanged – to develop, enhance and offer new, relevant HNs which meet the needs of employers.

That objective obviously has to be placed in the context of a world of work which has altered radically in the years since HNs were introduced. Ultimately, however, Higher National Certificates and Diplomas are still designed to prepare learners for employment, career development or progression on to college or university to study for a degree.

As the national accreditation and awarding body in Scotland, SQA’s remit is to develop, maintain, assess and accredit a wide range of qualifications to suit every learner, industry sector and further and higher education entry requirement in Scotland.

HNs are a key element of our work, particularly in terms of the route they provide to higher education or employment for people from the most deprived communities in Scotland.

In short, HNs provide opportunities for learners from all walks of life, who may not otherwise have that opportunity, to achieve a higher education qualification.

Our work on HNs dovetails with the Scottish Government’s economic strategy, which states that it will “invest in Scotland’s people at all stages of life to ensure that we have a well-skilled, healthy and resilient population” and that “everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential”.

New research published by the SQA this week highlights patterns of achievement in HN qualifications over the last six years. Our analysis confirms that Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Diplomas (HNDs) are delivering for people in Scotland’s most deprived communities.

The research has been referenced against the Scottish Government’s Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), the official tool for identifying communities in Scotland suffering from deprivation. Analysis by gender at sectoral level was also carried out to see whether there were differences between female and male certifications. The analysis shows that, in 2014-2015, the most deprived 20 per cent of Scottish communities provided 22.6 per cent of HN certifications, while the least deprived 20 per cent provided 16.7 per cent.

We know that HNs widen access to higher education (whether as a higher education qualification in their own right or as a route into a degree programme) in Scotland’s more deprived communities, but in some sectors it seems HNs are used as an alternative to going to university for those who we may ordinarily expect to take the school to university route.

Certifications in the computing, software and IT, and finance and accounting sectors are dominated by the more deprived quintiles. In the hair and beauty and health and social care sectors they are also dominated by the more deprived quintiles but also very much by females. Conversely, certifications in the engineering and oil & gas sectors are dominated by males and the less deprived quintiles.

As Scotland’s employers adjust to the changing demands of the marketplace, it is clear that HNs are viewed by learners as an effective and accessible route into a new career or higher education.

The results also suggest that SQA’s close working relationship with Scotland’s colleges, universities, employers and industry bodies is proving beneficial in delivering a range of valuable qualifications.

Ninety years on from their inception, HNCs and HNDs are continuing to meet the needs of learners across Scottish society by enabling them to achieve their higher education and employment ambitions. «