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Monday, 4 November, 2002, 12:20 GMT
Higher education is that above Advanced Higher grade and its equivalents and is provided in universities and colleges of higher education and in some further education colleges.
In the 1996-97 academic year there were more than 239,300 students on higher education courses in Scotland. Roughly half were studying for a first degree, a little over a third were studying for a higher education qualification (Higher National Diploma or Certificate, etc), 17 per cent were postgraduates and the others were on courses in further education institutions.
There are 22 higher education institutions in Scotland, including 13 universities and the remaining former central institutions and former colleges of education - plus the Open University. In addition, the Diploma of Higher Education (Dip HE) or the Higher National Diploma (HND) can be studied at further education colleges.
In the UK, all universities are governed by Acts of Parliament and enjoy academic freedom. They appoint their own staff, decide which students to admit, provide their own courses and award their own degrees.
The number of universities has increased considerably since 1992, when polytechnics were given their own degree-awarding powers and allowed to call themselves universities.
Scottish higher education institutions are self-governing organisations with sole responsibility for running their own affairs. This is done through a governing body of about 20 to 25 members drawn mainly from staff, students and representatives from businesses and the local community.
They get public funds for teaching, research and associated activities from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. Other income comes from such things as research grants and contracts, donations and fees for the many other services they provide.
All the Scottish universities have full degree-awarding powers.
Degrees are generally awarded for the successful completion of a three-year full-time course - an Ordinary Degree - or a four-year course at a more specialised and demanding level (an Honours Degree). Some professional subjects, such as medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses, normally take five to six years.
There is a wide range of subjects, often with close links with to commerce and industry. The other higher education institutions specialise in particular areas such as health care, art and design, music and drama, textile technology and teacher training.
In addition to Scottish Highers, institutions welcome applicants with vocational qualifications and with A-level passes or other qualifications from other parts of the United Kingdom - and applicants from abroad.
First degrees in most institutions have the title Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc). However, there are certain universities where Master is used for a first degree in arts subjects.
Special qualifications are awarded for bachelor degrees in engineering (BEng) and education (BEd). Where degrees are awarded with honours, these are divided into four classes: first (the highest), upper second, lower second and third.
The Diploma of Higher Education (Dip.HE) is a two-year diploma usually intended to serve as a stepping stone to a degree course or other further study. The Higher National Diploma (HND) is awarded after two years full-time, or three years sandwich course or part-time study.
Potential students apply through a central clearing house. All universities and most colleges providing higher education courses in the UK are members of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas).
Applicants are supplied with an application form and a Ucas handbook, available from schools, colleges and careers offices or direct from Ucas, and may apply to a maximum of six courses/institutions.
From the figures from 1997, of the 276,503 pupils admitted into higher education, 178,170 were accepted on the basis of their A-levels, 16,000 from the Scottish Higher and the remainder from vocational courses.
Across the UK most students who began full-time undergraduate courses at publicly-funded higher academic institutions in or after 1998/1999, or their parents or spouse, have to contribute towards the tuition fees for each year of the course.
The level of the contribution is means-tested. Those on lower family incomes get free tuition. The maximum contribution for those on higher incomes is £1,100.
Parental income is not taken into account if the student is 25 or over or has been self-supporting for at least three years before the start of the course.
In Wales the Assembly decided to bring back a limited "learning grant" from the 2002-03 academic year, setting aside £41m for the purpose.
This is expected to mean grants of about £750 for poorer students from Wales - those whose "residual income" is less than £15,000 - wherever in the UK they study.
The Northern Ireland Assembly approves scrapping up-front tuition fees, but says this measure would be too expensive to support and would contravene equality measures because offering free tuition to all would benefit the wealthy more than the disadvantaged.
But, for now, 14,000 students from low-income families in Northern Ireland will be eligible for bursaries of up to £1,500.
The government decided that Scottish students should not pay tuition fees for the final year of a degree course, if it was a year longer than the comparable course in England and Wales - as honours degrees in Scotland typically are.
The fee is paid by the government in the additional or honours year - usually the fourth year. Students from elsewhere in the UK who are at Scottish universities however have to pay their own fees. This so-called "Scottish anomaly" proved highly contentious.
The government got the legislation through Parliament in 1998 only by promising an independent review of the working of fees.
They became a major issue in the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament. In the end, an independent committee on student finance - the Cubie Committee - was set up as a result of the coalition deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Among 52 recommendations, Cubie said tuition fees should be replaced with a system under which graduates would pay £3,000 once they were earning £25,000.
The Scottish Executive did decide to scrap up-front tuition fees for Scottish students at Scottish universities, with graduates contributing £2,000 to a fund for new hardship grants, starting to pay this when their earnings are at least £10,000.
There are some other exceptions to the new rules. The government is exempting postgraduate trainee teachers from paying tuition fees, for instance.
Medical students do not have to pay in their fifth year. Those on courses such as nursing and midwifery get government bursaries to meet the fees.
There are other special cases, in particular students who fall within the "gap year" scheme announced on 14 August 1997 to cater for those who had intended to take a year out of education before going to university.
Students get help with living costs by being eligible for a support loan, with an interest rate linked to inflation, from the Student Loan Company.
The system of paying back the loans depends on the student's income as a graduate.
For those students who need further assistance, an extra discretionary loan of £250 a year may be available from what are known as the Access Funds.
Local education authorities can supply information, as well as the student support/student services office of the college or university students' union.
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