History of HN

2015 brings the anniversary of Scotland’s first Higher National Qualifications graduates. In 1925, 24 engineers and chemists attained the first Higher National qualifications in Scotland.

Our role has been pivotal in the development and uptake growth of these short cycle higher education qualifications. Delivered across the world they enable advanced degree programme entry and prepare work ready graduates.

Reveal Higher National's 90th Anniversary Timeline



Alarm at a national shortage of engineering and technical expertise results in the birth of HNs.

The qualifications appeared in a decade that saw Britain embark on a General Strike, Fleming’s introduce penicillin and John Logie Baird discover television.

The National Certificate was developed in response to the national shortage of engineering and technical expertise in post-war Scotland.

When the Higher National Certificate (HNC) first appeared it wasn’t welcomed with open arms. HNC students faced up to eight years of course work with classes two or three evenings a week. Despite this, the National Certificate grew in popularity and credibility.


 Roaring Twenties - 1920's

Gritty Thirties - 1930s


Fledgling HNs start to make an impact.

The Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, UK constitutional upheaval and the build-up to World War II hovered over the 30s, but the decade was a positive one for HNs as the subjects available grew.

The constant, underlying theme of developing, refining and offering new and relevant HNs to meet the needs of employers was as evident in the 1930s as it is now. But the 1930s were equally characterised by chronic skill shortages in the engineering industries.

As World War II loomed, classes were interrupted across Scotland as college staff became involved in civil defence.

Fortuitous Fourties - 1940s


HNs help to stimulate industry after the war.

The NHS was formed, world war and war recovery, Scotland slowly started to move away from its industrial heritage of traditional industries such as coal mining, ship building, heavy engineering and steel making.

To encourage engineering and manufacturing industries after the war, the government actively promoted intensive National Certificate courses in Mechanical Engineering for ex-servicemen.

College day-release classes were also introduced to apprentices. The numbers of HNC candidates on day-release increased steeply over the last three years of the decade.

 Fortuitous Fourties - 1940s


The drive to expand HNs gains momentum in this decade of optimism.

The birth of the teenager, the Suez Crisis, launch of the Russian Sputnik programme, and Roger Bannister’s epic sub-four minute mile – and in Scotland the drive to extend further education gained momentum.

In 1956, a major building programme of 15 colleges was launched - a considered response to fears that Scottish science and technology training could lag behind the Americans, Russians and Germans.

The initial focus was industry, then business and commerce with the opening of Chesters in Bearsden, the first Management School in Great Britain.

 Nifty Fifties - 1950


A new era of HNs flourishes in this time of great expansion.

This was time of The Beatles, the first man on the moon, the opening of the Forth Road Bridge and Jackie Stewart winning the Formula One World Championship. Industry in Scotland was veering away from reliance on traditional heavy engineering towards light engineering.

Service industries were emerging, with growth in computing, the health sector, hotel and catering and printing yielding new HN courses. The HND in Food Technology (Milk) was unique in Great Britain, and the HNC in Medical Laboratory Technology demonstrates the greater diversity of courses developed.

 Swinging Sixties - 1960


HNs are under close scrutiny in a turbulent decade.

The North Sea oil era was under way, Home Rule returned to the forefront of Scottish politics, and the three-day week of the miners’ strike dominated the news. Margaret Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street.

Hudson’s Report on Technician Courses and Examinations in Scotland recommended that the existing courses be replaced with new advanced-level courses and that a single policy-making body, the Scottish Technical Education Council (SCOTEC) should take responsibility for them. It also recommended that the Scottish Council for Commercial, Administrative and Professional Education (SCCAPE) become the Scottish Business Education Council (SCOTBEC) for consistency.

Stormy Seventies - 1970


A renewed focus on HNs strengthened ties with industry and grew the number of courses available.

The Falklands War and the Berlin Wall coming down were international news, while in Scotland, the emergence of Silicon Glen and the Lockerbie tragedy were witnessed.

By 1985, SCOTEC and SCOTBEC merged to become SCOTVEC, its remit to develop and encourage the advancement of vocational education and training in the context of national educational policy. Like its predecessors, SCOTVEC made an impact on tertiary education with its effective industry/education networks.

Over the next 3 years HND student numbers grew by 30%. By 1988 student numbers reached 10,000.

 Awesome Eighties - 1980 - Berlin Wall


The new Scottish Parliament, explosion of the internet, the Gulf War and the birth of Dolly the sheep were all in the news.

Meeting industry needs continued to be a priority. In 1992 the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act provided for the incorporation of colleges. This released colleges from local authority control and opened up the further education market to competitive practices.

The formation of the Scottish Qualifications Authority in 1997 finally brought together two strands of Scottish education – the academic and the vocational.

Prosperous Nineties - 1990 - Dolly the sheep


Eighty years on, HN qualification are still highly valued.

In this new century it is time to take stock of how HNs have been developed, expanded and refined to benefit thousands of people from all walks of life.

Statistics today show that 35,000 candidates take HN Qualifications in over 60 centres, including FE colleges, universities and higher education institutions every year. There are around 130 nationally developed titles, over 1,000 national and local frameworks and some 5,600 national and local HN Units.

Diversified Noughties - 2000 - Edinburgh castle fireworks


Progression is key in Scotland and internationally

The 7th billion child is born. Electric cars mainstream and the world becomes truly digitally enabled, smart, social & mobile.

Expanding our international markets – Opening the world to our HN students. The qualification is delivered across the world from Oman to China to Sri Lanka to Myanmar. Focus on smoothing progression from HNs to degrees.

As the 21st century progresses, SQA will continue raising the standard. Only time will tell what courses will be introduced in the years ahead, but the signs are strong that HNs will remain relevant and effective.

Troublesome Teens - 2010