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Summer Series Blog - Shona Struthers

Shona Struthers photoBy Shona Struthers, CEO, Colleges Scotland

Welcome to the Summer Series of blogs for the Colleges Scotland website. Over the coming weeks a range of interesting contributors will reflect on Scotland’s colleges in 2023, sharing their views on the challenges and opportunities facing all 26 colleges delivering world-class education and training to over 236,000 people each year across the country.

I’m starting this blog series with some reflections of my own.

Colleges Scotland is the membership organisation for the college sector in Scotland, and every day I speak to college leaders and stakeholders who are deeply committed to sustaining a thriving college sector.

If we imagine Scotland in 2030, what are the opportunities for the college sector? Amongst a hefty end-of-term drop of publications which reveal futures changes to come, the Independent Review of the Skills Delivery Landscape is the most attention grabbing. James Withers has proposed a suite of changes to tertiary education and training which, a few years from now, would see Scotland with a single funding and delivery body, resetting remits for our enterprise agencies, responsibility for national skills planning moved to the Scottish Government, and reform of Skills Development Scotland.

Colleges Scotland supports the direction of travel set out in Withers and the need for change.

Some of these recommendations have already been swiftly accepted by the Minister, who has announced that there will be a new national model of public funding for all colleges and universities, as well as apprenticeships and training, delivered alongside other widespread reforms across the education and skills sector.

The college sector is ready to play its part in these changes and to ensure the focus continues to be on the learner and what will deliver best for them.

One point made by James Withers has given me a lot of food for thought about how society in Scotland views colleges, and in how we tell our story. He notes: “I want to consign to the dustbin the outdated view that studying at university is somehow a “better” kind of success. It is undoubtedly something to be celebrated: we should be proud of Scotland’s university sector and for many it is an important part of their post-school journey. However, there are multiple potential pathways available addressing different learning approaches, using different contexts to provide experience, and meeting individual (and economic and societal) needs.”

In my own home, with the last of our teenagers leaving, I’ve been regaled by tales of fifth-years being unable to access their prom, of sixth-years heading to college not being celebrated in the same way as pupils heading to university are celebrated, which makes me acutely aware of what signals we sometimes unconsciously give to our young people. I know colleagues across the education and skills system sector would also support all paths of learning being applauded. So, I would much rather that by 2030 we have told the story of college success and value to more people, and more loudly. College is a first choice, not a last choice.

Another of the recent publications was an independent review by Professor Louise Hayward on the qualifications and assessment system. Once again, Colleges Scotland would support many of the recommendations, particularly around the recognition of achievements of individuals that are wider than the formal assessment system, the importance of recognising all qualifications which are at the same SCQF level and of assessing skills and applied knowledge. The new national qualifications body will oversee all publicly funded post school qualifications, except degrees.

Last week the Scottish Government’s Purpose and Principles document was revealed, which sets out five principles for the tertiary education system in Scotland, “a framework that sets the policy direction and shapes delivery priorities” and which will “stand the test of time.” These are also framed around the Scottish Government’s priorities of ‘Equality, Opportunity and Community’.

A strong and vibrant college sector will be required to deliver on these ambitions. However, at this time I am seeing colleges that are surviving, not thriving, due to the current financial climate. Unfortunately, because of budget cuts, jobs are being lost, talent is leaving the sector and courses are being cut. The holistic services which surround and support students, such as on-campus mental health counselling, are also under huge pressure. Making colleges estates just wind and watertight, not even fit for the future, will cost a staggering £775million.

I am acutely aware that colleges as part of the public sector are going to be impacted even further by squeezed central resources, with the Scottish Fiscal Commission predicting that Scotland’s resource spending requirements could exceed the predicted central funding available by 2% (£1 billion) in 2024-25, rising to 4% (£1.9 billion) in 2027-28. I am also fully aware of the need for colleges like all other parts of the public sector to be efficient, innovative, and at the same time keep students at the heart of what colleges do.

With a budget of £3.2billion available for skills in Scotland, and a college sector that must play a leading role in delivering the Scottish Government’s priorities, especially around the National Strategy on Economic Transformation, there is scope for repurposing some of this budget.

So, colleges in Scotland should be given an enhanced role in the tertiary mix: leading regional skills partnerships, and working even more closely than they do today with local, regional and national businesses to plan and provide the skills training that Scotland needs. Businesses may have to also consider what their role is commercially alongside their local college, and as they invest more in staff, invest more into the college system that is ready to provide word-class education and training which benefits us all.

James Withers concludes his Review by highlighting the need for decisive action by Ministers, and that “substantial change is required to ensure the system is fit for the future. For the reasons I have set out I believe, in the context of wider education reform, the challenges of a tight fiscal environment, rising living costs, and the need to act now to ensure a just transition, that the time is right to make those changes.”

The Minister said in Parliament last month that “Scotland’s colleges are vital in supporting the future careers and prosperity of our young people and our economy. I look forward to … working across the chamber, I hope, to support our colleges for learners today and in the future.”

Colleges are poised and ready to assist with the necessary changes. When colleges thrive, Scotland thrives.


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