Are Scottish degrees an easy ride?


glasgow university main building grounds

Credit: Taylor Robertson

Ilia Hionidou

“Where’ve you applied?” became the preeminent question in the sixth form common room during my 13th and final year of A-levels. I could eventually reel off the list automatically: York, Liverpool, Glasgow… Along with many of my other friends, many of whom were also applying for the arts and social sciences, I hadn’t shied away from considering, and ultimately applying to, Scottish universities. Coming from Newcastle, universities in Scotland were just as, if not more, geographically accessible as the southern universities, say Exeter or East Anglia. But the deliberation always came down to the same sorts of questions: what about the four years? And doing three subjects in the first two years? Is that not just the same as A-levels? At the time, I didn’t really think about it too much. As I pass the halfway mark of second year, and many of my peers at English universities reach the halfway benchmark of their undergraduate careers, I question whether a four-year course is really worth it for English students.

The first advantage of the Scottish system, especially for English students, is the flexibility. The average A-levels student takes 3 A levels, while Scottish students normally sit around 5 Highers. While it could be argued that the first year at university in Scotland is “equivalent” to A-levels for English students, the range of courses at university compared to A-levels is much broader. More often than not, it allows for students, both English and Scottish, to explore wider fields and pursue previously uncharted territory. This is especially true for students of the arts and the social sciences. In my first year, along with taking English Literature and Spanish, both of which I took at A-level, I took beginners Italian, a choice which was unavailable at later stages of secondary school in England. For many students, the two years prior to honours is an invaluable opportunity to exercise flexibility into their degrees, as second year student at the University of Edinburgh, Cait says: “the extra year let me explore subjects previously unavailable to me, which ultimately led to my decision to change my sociology degree to joint honours sociology and social policy.” Cases such as these are rarely heard of in English universities and are yet another reason why the extra year at Scottish Universities is a beneficial option for English students who would otherwise subscribe prematurely to just one subject.

So, the utility of the first year for many English students is undisputed. The standard of first year university courses, however, is an entirely different matter. In both English literature and Spanish, I found that the content of the courses was in no way more challenging than that of A-level, but rather the delivery: lectures, seminars, lack of classes and fewer contact hours. I found for arts subjects the effort required to do well in first and second year was incomparable to the stress of A-levels. However, for many STEM students, the jump between A-levels and first year at Glasgow can be just as big as the jump between GCSE and A-levels. Second year Chemistry student Faye recalls that “biology and maths were definitely more difficult because there were many more concepts to grasp, which were quite challenging, there was a lot more content as well.” Another matter, similar to arts subjects, is the teaching methods and lack of support in comparison to A-Levels, this being the reason I found that extra first year so beneficial. Having fewer contact hours, more lectures and yet more time reading through reams of academic journals was something I took full advantage of in my first year.

Overall, for English students, there are a plethora of advantages in attending a Scottish university: the flexibility of choice, the scope of subjects that are available, and – crucially – postponing the hunt for grad-jobs by just one more year.