Friday, August 25, 2006


What the article below does not mention is that the role of alcohol in Scottish university life would be a shock to many Americans

At an age when most toddlers were singing along to Raffi, Zarya Rathe got hooked on Celtic music. She listened with her mom-a violinist-and played herself. So when the time came for college, Rathe applied to four schools in Scotland, ending up at the University of Edinburgh. "I wanted to do something different," she says. Except that when Rathe arrived in Gaelic 101, she was hardly alone. "It was all Americans."

Rathe is one of a growing number of U.S. students heading to kilt country for college. The main attraction: a quartet of medieval universities-Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow and St. Andrews-known as the Scottish Ivies. Since 2000-01, American participation in study-abroad programs has increased by 20 percent; England and Canada still attract students looking to attend a foreign school. But U.S. enrollment in Scottish colleges is up 80 percent in the past decade; at Edinburgh, it's tripled since 2003, and more than a tenth of St. Andrews' students are American.

Part of the appeal is esthetic. For Americans taken with the looks of an Ivy League campus, Scotland's ancient universities can hold an ever-richer store of history. Aberdeen was founded in 1495, 141 years before Harvard; St. Andrews has stood on the cliffs of Fife for nearly six centuries. Stephanie Gorton got into Columbia-her dream school-but that dream faded after a weekend visit to Edinburgh, the youngest of the lot. Compared with better-known British schools like Cambridge or Oxford, the Scottish colleges offer a curriculum that strikes a nice balance between the foreign and the familiar. An English undergrad education lasts only three years, and students must specialize in a single subject from day one. Scottish schools, while offering far fewer electives than their U.S. counterparts, still boast a four-year program that allows undergrads to study several subjects before settling on a major.

The Scottish Ivies are selective-but not nearly as competitive as the American elites. The typical student admitted to Harvard, Yale or Princeton scores about 750 on each section (Math, Verbal and Writing) of the SAT; Edinburgh requires 600. Top Ivies accept about 10 percent of applicants, but St. Andrews takes 20 percent of the 500 Americans who apply annually. One drawback: cost. Due to subsidies, Scottish natives pay only $4,000 in tuition, but foreigners pay $15,000. With room, board and travel, Americans can expect to fork over about $25,000 a year-and there's no financial aid available to ease the burden. Yet some find the cultural immersion priceless. Rathe, now a junior, recalls an evening on the Black Isle when she dined on haggis and watched neighbors recite Scottish poetry. "You got shivers down your spine." It's a far cry from toga parties at Delta House-but for a certain kind of student, that's precisely the point.



Leading universities are warning teenagers that they will not gain admission if they study "soft" A levels in the sixth form. The universities are insisting that pupils take traditional subjects if they want to be considered for degree courses. Those applying with A levels in subjects such as media studies or health and social care would rule themselves out. Up to one in six students took A levels this summer in at least one of 20 subjects listed by Cambridge as "less effective preparation" for entry. In what will come as a surprise to some schools and students, the list includes business studies, information and communication studies, and design and technology.

The move to spell out "unacceptable" A levels emerged after the pass rate rose for the 24th successive year to a record 96.6 per cent. The rise in the proportion of A grades awarded was the second largest in 40 years. In a backlash against the growing popularity of subjects such as sports studies, and tourism and dance, institutions such as Cambridge, the LSE and Manchester are telling applicants to concentrate on the more academic A levels. Admissions tutors insist that a lower grade in an academic subject, such as history or mathematics, will be of more use than a high grade in an apparently easier alternative. However, they believe that thousands of working-class pupils are losing out when they choose their A-level courses, because schools are failing to give them the best guidance. The proportion of state school pupils and those from low-income families attending university dropped to its lowest level for three years in 2004-05.

Tomorrow more than 700,000 teenagers will receive their GCSE results. Cambridge has posted a notice on its website telling youngsters: "Your choice of AS and A-level subjects can have a significant impact on the course options available to you at university. "To be a realistic applicant, a student will normally need to be offering two traditional academic subjects. For example, mathematics, history and business studies would be an acceptable combination," Cambridge's online prospectus states. "However, history, business studies and media studies would not."

Geoff Parks, the admissions tutor for Cambridge, said that a significant number of students were given no advice on what options might be closed to them if they chose a poor combination of A levels. Last week it emerged that just 42 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds in England were attending university in 2004-05, the second successive drop in two years. Few, including the Government, now expect to meet the target of half that age group attending university by 2010.

Generous bursaries for the worst-off and outreach programmes appear to be making little headway in encouraging students from poorer backgrounds to apply. Universities are baffled and the Government has ordered an audit. Tessa Stone, director of the Sutton Trust education charity, which provides summer schools to encourage more underprivileged children to apply to university, believes that poor A-level guidance could be one reason. Dr Stone says that Cambridge's direct approach may appear hard, but it is fairer to candidates in the long run because they are less likely to drop out if they have studied the right subjects.

While many universities do not explicitly exclude subjects, Dr Stone says, in reality they do. At Bristol, few A levels are explicitly discouraged, but for a BA in English, the prospectus states that GCSEs and A levels "in classical or foreign languages" are an advantage. In the same way, law A level is "acceptable but does not give any advantage". Malcolm Grant, Provost of University College London and chairman of the Russell group of research universities, said that students must not be put off learning, however. "I do think universities must be more explicit than implicit in guidance, but they must also widen participation. There are also so many things that switch kids off and being advised to do subjects that don't match their aspirations could be a disaster."


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