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Scotland Snapshot: strong on quality and looking to boost student mobility

Accounting for less than a third of the UK’s total area, Scotland is something of a powerhouse from the vantage point of higher education. It is the world leader by the measure of having the most world-class universities per head of population, and it has five institutions ranked in the world’s top 200. It is also committed to changing and innovating its education system to stay on the cutting edge of research and industry practice, and to matching graduates to jobs or further study, as we will see later in this article.

Quality aside, Scotland does have some challenges regarding higher education: it wants to increase poorer students’ access to higher education as well as the number of Scottish students studying elsewhere for periods of time. In addition, its universities are struggling like those in other parts of the UK with the country’s tighter immigration policy and both real and perceived restrictions on international students’ ability to work post-graduation.

This ICEF Monitor article looks how Scotland is pursuing higher education excellence and what it is doing to address its challenges.

Scotland’s universities invite assessment – and innovation

The Scottish higher education system combines institutional independence with central quality assurance. Specifically, each institution decides on programme content and how students will be assessed, which has led to a huge diversity of programmes from which Scottish and international students can choose. Study in Scotland reports that “Scotland’s university sector is able to offer over 4,500 courses in more than 150 subject groupings at the undergraduate and postgraduate level.”

To balance this independence, all Scottish universities also participate in a quality assurance framework overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which conducts reviews of all UK institutions and publishes publicly available reports on the findings; the reports highlight good practice and provide recommendations for improving quality. On each review team are peer and student reviewers. The QAA also publishes a range of reference points and guidance so all institutions know what is expected in terms of quality of the student experience.

In recent years, Scottish universities have been eager to embrace curriculum innovations aimed at matching graduates with the real world of the global marketplace. Right on track with a recent ICEF Monitor article, Scottish universities are working with industry and professionals in programme design and delivery – with impressive results. Study in Scotland reports:

“Nine out of every ten graduates go on to work or further study within six months of graduation. Graduates from Scotland’s universities also have the highest starting salaries in the UK.”

Study in Scotland says Scottish universities are graduating students who are able to think independently, exercise judgement and initiative, work in teams, develop leadership skills, and apply evidence-based argument.

Quality has allowed Scotland to remain attractive to rest of UK despite new fees

While Scottish students and those from other parts of the EU are exempt from paying tuition to Scottish universities, students from other parts of the UK have, since 2012, been required to pay fees of up to £9,000 a year. This is similar to what they would pay if studying in other parts of the UK.

Students from non-EU countries typically pay fees of between £10,000 and £20,000 a year, depending on their course. A study by Strathclyde University published in 2009 estimated that international students contribute £188 million to universities in Scotland directly, with a further £321 million to the wider Scottish economy.

Having to pay fees in Scotland isn’t stopping other British students from coming, however: applications to Scottish universities from students in the rest of the UK have risen by 14% compared to last year (versus only a modest increase of just over 1% from Scottish students).

This means Scottish universities are “outperforming” other parts of the UK. Almost 29,000 students from the rest of the country applied between the middle of January and the end of June compared with 25,000 in the same period in 2012.

The Scotsman quotes David Lott, deputy director of Universities Scotland, as saying:

“Scotland’s universities have the highest levels of student satisfaction and best rates in the UK for graduates getting jobs or progressing to further study.”

That said, Scottish universities, like others in the rest of the UK, have been hit by tighter UK immigration policy. Earlier this year, Universities Scotland explicitly blamed steep declines (such as a nearly 26% fall in Indian students in 2011/12, a 25% fall in Pakistani students, and a 14% drop in Nigerian ones) on the UK Border Agency’s elimination of its post-study work route for international students and “tough talk on immigration.”

Overall, Study in Scotland reports that “over 11.3% of students studying in Scotland are drawn from across the European Union and about 10.1% from the rest of the world.”

For information on fees for international students wishing to study in Scotland and possible scholarships, click here.

Outward mobility the next horizon

As much as Scottish students have excellent higher education options right at their doorstep, their government wants them to go out in the world to study more than they are now.

In general, students in the UK are much less likely to study abroad than students in other EU countries. A Joint Steering Group on UK Outward Student Mobility reported last year that:

“Though 10% of the world’s foreign students in tertiary education choose to study in the UK, we lag behind when it comes to encouraging UK students to be mobile themselves. The UK ranks just 25th in the world for the number of students studying abroad, and while we are among the main receivers of students under the EU’s Erasmus mobility programme, the number of outgoing UK Erasmus students was under 12,000 in 2009/10, compared with 31,158 from Spain, 30,213 from France, and 28,854 from Germany.”

A Scottish government-funded project, Developing Scotland’s Global Citizens, identifies the following as issues impinging on Scottish students’ study abroad trends:

  • Lack of short-term mobility windows;
  • Low provision of mobility windows in key subject areas;
  • Lack of institutional knowledge on mobility opportunities;
  • Limited student knowledge on available mobility options;
  • Decline in young people learning languages;
  • Limited employer recognition of mobility skills and attributes.

Scotland, like the UK, is aware of the European Higher Education Area target of 20% of European students spending at least three months studying or training in another country by 2020.

In an effort to begin sending more Scottish students to other countries for study periods, the government announced this year that it is launching a pilot that will provide “loans of up to £5,500 and bursaries of up to £1,750 to about 250 students attending institutions in the EU in 2014–15.” Before this pilot, Scottish students could apply for financial aid only to the countries/institutions in which they wished to study.

Scottish students will also be able to apply for the new “Generation UK” campaign announced by the British Council in June, which aims to help at least 15,000 UK students either study or gain work experience in China by 2016.

Already, there are some promising signs regarding Scottish students’ study abroad trends. Erasmus stats show that:

  • The number of Scottish undergraduates studying abroad rose by 9.7% (to 1,362) between 2010/11 and 2011/12.
  • The number of students leaving Scotland for work experience rose by more than 20% to 448.

Moreover, there are some predictions that the number of young people from Scotland who will be able to study or train abroad will double under Erasmus+ funding from the EU.

More change afoot

As the Scottish government brainstorms ways to encourage more student mobility, it is also watching as domestically, its college system rearranges itself. The Scotsman has just reported that 12 Scottish colleges have merged to form four further education institutions in a process of “college regionalisation.”

Scotland is also struggling with a heated debate about the perceived socio-economic inequality of its education system, which has been accused of being “elitist.”

While they may need to get more students “in” (in terms of improving access for students from across Scottish society) and more students “out” (into the world), Scotland’s higher education institutions are already performing at a high level.

In addition to high employability rates, in the 2012 National Student Survey, whose respondents are final-year undergraduate students, Scotland’s universities were judged to have the highest overall satisfaction ratings in the UK with 86%.

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