As a new hospitality academy gains momentum, how effective are Scotland’s articulation avenues?
When students taking part in the East Lothian Tourism and Hospitality Academy launched in August were asked in one of their first meetings to list the jobs the sector could offer them, they could come up with just one answer – chef. In its short lifetime, however, both the academy and its students have already come a long way. It received cross-party political blessing at a reception to mark its opening in September, and hotels, property firms and events companies are rushing to sign up as partners. Its students are spoilt for choice: they have clear paths into higher education before them if they so choose, as well as a clutch of prospective employers waiting to tempt them into work. They also now know there are dozens of potential careers waiting for them in one of Scotland’s most important and labour intensive economic sectors, and they’re getting first-hand experience in many of them. Little wonder that East Lothian’s model of partnership is being evaluated with interest by those facing the challenges of improving articulation [moving from college to an advanced year of university] widening access to university and tackling youth unemployment.
Those goals were all expressed in Putting Learners at the Centre, the Scottish Government’s post-16 education reform white paper. Improving articulation – which recognises learning at HN level done at college with advanced standing when a student applies to university – is perhaps the least glamorous of those, but nonetheless it is key to the success of the other two. Providing avenues for articulation can help universities achieve their widening access goals, as HN students are more likely to come from social and economic backgrounds underrepresented within higher education. In a competitive job market, employers are more likely to take on better-qualified applicants. The Scottish Government is also eager to eliminate the duplication created when HN students are only accepted into the first year of a university degree, rather than the second or third year – leaving the Government to foot the bill for up to six years’ study when only four should be needed under the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF).
Relationships between institutions to improve articulation aren’t new, but the hospitality academy brings together four partners in that aim for the first time in Scotland – a university, a college, the local authority and employers. Together, Queen Margaret University, Jewel and Esk College and East Lothian Council work with 38 students from three local secondaries – Musselburgh Grammar School, Preston Lodge High School in Prestonpans, and Ross High School in Tranent, all selected on the basis that they would benefit most from the initiative. The students have to apply, and are interviewed and selected by a three-person panel. The desire of the students to be there is a key factor: although it is in its earliest stages, the academy’s organisers highlight with pride that it has a 100 per cent retention rate so far.
“We all know that it’s at points of transition that young people have trouble moving from school to college, college [to] university, education into employment. What the academy tries to do is to smooth those transitions,” says QMU deputy principal Professor Alan Gilloran. Learning is delivered flexibly across school, college, university and work settings, an approach that has a variety of benefits. Sixteen year olds who might not have sat Standard or Higher grades at all are being brought into college and university settings, demystifying a potentially intimidating environment. “One thing that’s key for me is raising aspiration,” says Gilloran. “It’s aimed at addressing not necessarily the academic high flyers, but people who have got a bit of get up and go, but just need to be encouraged, need to have the doors opened to think, I could get there.” QMU Business, Enterprise and Management lecturer Dr Majella Sweeney adds that despite the fact that many of the students live on the university’s doorstep, many of them had never been in the university before. Surrounded by positive examples of what they could achieve, staff say the students are raising their expectations of themselves. When a QMU graduate working in luxury property management came to speak to the group, the first question he was asked was, “How much do you earn?”
The employers that have come on board have matched that enthusiasm. They have input into the curriculum, and despite a traditional reluctance amongst hotel groups to let outsiders have access, particularly to their booking systems, many have welcomed the academy’s youngsters. East Lothian Hospitality and Tourism Coordinator Ron McGilp says that in his 24 years of teaching hospitality within further education, he has never seen employers be so willing to open their doors. “It’s almost carte blanche. I’m so impressed by the buy in from companies. It’s more than I’ve seen to any work placement.” Word is spreading, with new private sector partners coming on board since the academy’s launch, such as Edinburgh’s Point Hotel. The list now includes the Mariott, Novotel and Mercure groups, as well as local establishments such as the Prestonfield Hotel, the Caledonian Waldorf Astoria and Fraser Suites. “They see what’s in it for them – retention of good quality staff,” says Gilloran.
The students are free to decide whether to seek employment or further study at the end of the academy programme; the purpose isn’t just to create more students articulating into university graduates – although Gilloran says that he anticipates a rise in the number of students doing just that – but to prepare them to end up in a positive destination whenever they decide to leave education. The hospitality academy’s students are being exposed to employers and workplace settings early and often, and are developing employability ‘soft-skills’, such as CV writing and timekeeping, with HR professionals, which should help avoid some of the issues around lack of support identified in the latest Edinburgh, Lothians, Fife and Borders Regional Articulation Hub (ELRAH) annual study. Articulation has improved in recent years, particularly since the creation of five regional ‘articulation hubs’ built around university and college partnerships. Cathy Howieson, author of ELRAH’s annual report, says the advice and support made available to HN students wanting to continue their education has improved greatly. However, it’s still the case that not all students wanting to articulate are able to do so.
The 25 per cent of HND student who didn’t articulate held back primarily because they weren’t offered advanced standing; worryingly, despite the fact that the majority of their courses had continuity with the relevant university degrees, a fifth of non-articulating students hadn’t been told by their colleges that they could even apply for advanced standing. Many students who did articulate felt their college hadn’t done all it could to prepare them for the academic rigours of university life. That said, not all HN students want to do a university degree, let alone articulate; the ELRAH study found that among the roughly half of HNC student who didn’t articulate into university, the primary reasons were concerns about the academic demands, and a desire to have the “full university experience,” including a freshers’ year.
“For some people, six years is a long road to travel to get a degree,” says NUS Scotland president Robin Parker. He accepts that the target shouldn’t be for 100 per cent of HN students to articulate, but adds that too often, articulation pathways are dependent on ad-hoc personal and institutional relationships between universities and local colleges. With new outcome agreements coming into force at the start of the current academic year, and the introduction of the Post-16 Bill expected imminently, Parker says that “ambitions have to be real” around articulation, with an element of enforceability. His views are echoed by Labour shadow education spokesman Hugh Henry, who calls the current system “a bit hit-and-miss”.
With youth unemployment stubbornly high and skills shortages affecting key economic sectors from oil and gas to computer games, the East Lothian academy is unlikely to remain the only one of its kind for long. At least one other Scottish university is rumoured to be considering a similar partnership with a local college in its own specialist area. For its part, Gilloran says that QMU is already planning expansion, with schools in Midlothian and southeast Edinburgh being considered as partners for similar ventures in its other areas of excellence. While he doesn’t want to put too much pressure on the project in its early stages, Gilloran also harbours hopes of one day adding flexible entry points to the academy’s flexible exits by bringing young people who left school early but who want to re-engage back in at S5. The only question hanging over those close to the project is – as with any good idea – why didn’t we think of this before?