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CHARLES BANNERMAN: Are qualifications from UHI really that credible?

By Charles Bannerman

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UHI offers a range of courses.
UHI offers a range of courses.

Access to higher education within the Highlands was, like many things, a long time coming, but the University of the Highlands and Islands still has a major question to answer: is it a technical college or a university?

That’s currently far from clear since the institution offers a wide range of often obscure degree and non-degree courses and, in order to acquire vital academic credibility, needs to make up its mind.

Looking through its prospectus, I don’t really get the feeling of burgeoning intellectual rigour in many of its honours courses, or their entry qualifications. For instance they have degree, yes degree, courses like adventure education, golf management or marine and coastal tourism, accessible with just three C passes in today’s worryingly dumbed down Highers.

It further offers an eclectic mix of non-degree HNCs, HNDs and other qualifications, mostly very necessary and relevant in a technical college environment. These, indeed, would be of even more use if taken up by the many students who are instead entering degree courses of very dubious relevance, gravitas or value for taxpayers’ money.

University entrance now extends so far down the ability range that I seriously question how many undergraduates are capable of mastering what could be described as a credible degree course.

Alongside the historic dumbing down of school qualifications, those from universities have clearly followed a parallel path. Apart from it being impossible to pile ever more students into universities and expect them to perform at realistic degree level, it’s equally alarming to learn that well over 30 per cent of UK students are now being awarded First Class Honours.

A First used to signify an extremely high level of academic distinction and mastery... a gold standard in excellence. But they’re now dishing them out to a third of an unrealistically expanded student population. A First therefore isn’t even the smallest of four honours degree categories, so what price its exclusivity? And what on earth happened to the Ordinary? The number of Firsts floating around therefore makes it very difficult for employers, or anyone else, to discriminate.

Which university a graduate attended can partly establish some notion of merit within this drive towards mediocrity, and UHI must be in danger of losing out badly here. If a degree is becoming less and less of a determinant of academic ability, then qualifications from an institution with an additional identity crisis about whether it’s a university or a technical college are going to be well off the pace and on the academic periphery.

Expansion of places, beginning in the 1990s, saw a plethora of colleges upgraded to become universities. These institutions’ very nature and origins cast them and their qualifications far down the pecking order. UHI would have avoided this obvious banana skin if it had been set up purely and simply as a university. This would have allowed it to focus on and receive credit for what universities should do best, the production of high-quality graduates with credible degrees.

But instead, UHI followed the flawed route of growing out of existing colleges and, with the value and merit of many degrees becoming increasingly questionable, it’s landed itself with an ambiguous identity, to the great detriment of its credibility.

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