A better undergraduate?

Given that most students at university in the UK are not studying in Scotland, you might not be aware of the staggering differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK in terms of higher education. Having studied only in Scotland before I took up my first lectureship, I was completely unaware that the Scottish model wasn’t the one used elsewhere in the UK.

In most university degree programmes south of the border, you apply, through UCAS, for a place on a specific degree programme. It is quite likely that the only subject you’ll take in first year is the one that you are going to do your degree in, although it may be the majority of your credits or even half of them. But, either way, from day one, you are guaranteed, so long as you don’t flunk out, an Honours degree.

In Scotland, as a secondary school student, you might think you are being given a place on a degree programme, but you aren’t really. You are being accepted into a Faculty (usually Science or Arts), and you have satisfied the requirements for the degree and the Faculty. This means that, in first and second year, you are taking modules in your chosen degree, but the majority of your credits will be in other subjects, which may be new to you, have little expertise, or no interest. Typically, there is a module in your chosen subject in each semester totalling 40 from 120 credits. That ain’t much, sir.

And you are not guaranteed a place on the Honours course of your choice.

This always comes as a surprise to those south of the border, and usually our own students, but in Scotland, usually at the very least, you have to compete for a place in third year (i.e., Honours), and in some courses/universities, you compete at all years. This means that you pass the other modules you have taken but aren’t interested in doing a degree in PLUS gained an appropriate mark in your chosen degree modules, usually around 60%. And in some universities, this mark is dependent on how many places there are for third year, so it could be 58%, or 62% or even 70%. You don’t actually know.

For those of you who are on a course where you are guaranteed an Honours degree, even if you only get 40% each year, this may seem easy peasy. Having been through the system, I can tell you it IS NOT.

The Scottish system is EXTREMELY demanding and competitive. My second year was the worst year of my life. I wouldn’t want to go through the system again but I am very glad that I did. The Scottish system is very similar to the US liberal arts college system, and it, usually, produces a well rounded graduate, as in first and second year you could be taking all kinds of varied topics from physics, to theology, to philosophy, to foreign languages.

Having taught in Scotland and south of the border, and seen both systems in action, I might be biased, but I infinitely prefer the Scottish system. For example, students actually have to work hard to get their degree because they are under threat every year of being washed out of the system, even if they pass. Forty percent just ain’t good enough. South of the border you can cruise to an, albeit crap, Honours degree, with very little effort because you are never in fear of being chucked out.

The results is this. In Scotland, Desmonds and Thora Hird’s are an endangered species. Certainly where I worked south of the border, they were rampant. And it is simply due to the fact that in Scotland we wash the time wasters and clock watchers out of the system before they get to Honours, and send them of with a diploma or general degree. In my graduating year of 1999, one-third of the class got a 1st, everyone else got a 2:1 bar a couple of people who got 2:2’s.

Of course, if you are a marginal student, or struggling for other reasons, it is tough going….

You might be chuckling to yourself right now, thinking “yeah, right”, and muttering under your breath about grade inflation and crap universities and degrees. But Scotland has the same external examiner system as the rest of the UK and many of its externals are actually from south of the border.

So, the next time you get an applicant for a job or postgraduate degree who has come from the Scottish system, give some thought to what they have fought through to get their degree. Contrary to some people’s beliefs the Scottish educational system is not inferior to the rest of the UK, and Scotland is not some kind of educational backwater….we ROCK!


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