GAP years could be given the same value as Highers according to one of Scotland’s leading figures in education.
Sir Andrew Cubie said he wanted to see travel abroad placed on the same level as some academic qualifications.
Sir Andrew, chairman of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF), suggested such a move might increase opportunities for people from different backgrounds and varying talents.
But teaching unions warned that putting gap years on the same level as formal academic qualifications could increase inequality.
The university gap year has been perceived in some quarters simply as an opportunity for rich students to take an extended holiday.
Universities Scotland said any changes to the system should not apply to students on gap years “bumming around Australia”.
Sir Andrew, who authored the 2010 Cubie Report reviewing university tuition fees, believes the change would help bring together academic qualifications and “wider achievement”.
In an interview with a education magazine, he said he would “absolutely” like to see things like gap years, volunteering and vocational studies be worth the equivalent of academic qualifications.
He said university bodies could be persuaded to radically alter procedures in a move away from focusing on traditional academic achievement.
It would see young people given the same merit for a year abroad as, for example, spending fifth or sixth year at school studying subjects like Maths, Chemistry or English.
Productive time out that involved Scouting and Guiding were among the expert’s suggestions for achievements that could be put on the same level as a Higher.
The SCQF already applies a points system which allows for comparisons between different qualifications.
Sir Andrew hopes that the SCQF would encourage young people to follow ambitions that went beyond traditional qualifications and a “piece of parchment from a school”.
But he said there was a “huge task ahead”.
A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said any change would need to be “realistic” and discussed by a broad range of partners.
She warned that some gap years “bumming around in Australia” would not be suitable.
“You need to be careful. Not everybody gets the same opportunities to travel abroad.
“If you are opening it up working over a year out would have to be in there as well. A year out working is quite an important process as well.
“It would be quite difficult to make an assessment of what a person gets out of their experience.”
She added: “We are open minded and really happy to be part of any discussions. We need to be clear to pupils that minimum entry requirement for university remain in place.”
Alan McKenzie, spokesman from the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said: “The kind of gap year activity would need to be regulated.
“A gap year is not just a skive and the young people I know don’t use it as a skive.”
He continued: “You would have to be vigilant about the potential of young people from poorer backgrounds being disadvantaged.”
“Gap years have become almost the norm now for school leavers,” he added. “We would support a flexible approach. Universities need to be as flexible as they can.”
Aileen Ponton, CEO of the SCQF Partnership said: “It is more important than ever than we look at everything a young person achieves, not just academic qualifications.
“The SCQF allows all types of learning to be recognised and allows a comparison and parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications which is vitally important both for our young people and the future economy of Scotland.”