Summer Series Blog – Dr Liz Cameron CBE

Welcome to the Summer Series of blogs, where thinkers and experts give their views on colleges in Scotland and on what the future may hold. The views expressed are the views of the author. Dr Liz Cameron CBE is the Director and Chief Executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce. Enjoy Blog 2.

Dr Liz Cameron CBE

As a former student of James Watt College, now West College Scotland, I know first-hand the crucial role colleges play in the Scottish economy, bringing significant value in terms of economic growth, educational advancement, and social development to all.

As businesses continue to face persistent challenges accessing labour, with a less flexible immigration system, now more so than ever, we need to continuously look at improvements and enhancements to the way we educate, skill and train. Standing still is not an option if we are to tackle economic and social challenges and take advantage of the opportunities of the future.

The pace of economic and technological change means we must always be ready to adapt, and shift focus to where the economy demands. The skills sector encompassing early years, further and higher education, and apprenticeships have, where possible, remained agile in the face of such challenges.

We have witnessed over decades the transformation that colleges have undergone to ensure we are continuing to equip learners with the practical skills and knowledge necessary for the labour market.

Most recently, the Independent Review of the Skills Delivery Landscape by James Withers advocates the need for reform and closer alignment, echoing some of the previous calls from the Enterprise and Skills Board which I had the privilege to be part of. This includes clear and measurable learning pathways, a needs-based skills planning processes, which are effectively delivered and funded. It is also important that we do not rush into major changes for the sake of it.

It cannot be about structures. It must be about leadership. We need to have the right people at the helm driving forward change but to improve and grow what we have. Business must be part of any redesign to ensure it meets our needs. Businesses create the jobs and are major investors in the systems and the people. Without our support we will not create the economic growth and opportunities I know we collectively strive to attain.

Regardless of the reform agenda led by Government, business will always need a combination of talent sources. That means we need to maintain the agility and responsiveness of apprenticeships, expand apprenticeship opportunities, and increase the role of further education in upskilling and reskilling for people of all ages.

This will ensure that the higher education sector remains globally attractive and aligned with the economy. If we get this right, Scotland will future proof its workforce which will continue to drive innovation, competitiveness, and entrepreneurship.

Do we need change? Yes, recruiting the right talent at the right time and sourcing the specific skills that businesses need continues to feature among the top issues impacting on our ability to grow.

The biggest gaps we hear the most often are in technical, vocational and specialist skills. This is seen in the kind of occupations that are proving the hardest to fill and the skills necessary to fill them, such as engineering positions and software development professionals.

This further underlines the importance of apprenticeships and further education in meeting the skills demands that are holding back growth. How we ensure the skills system is aligned and interacts with businesses is crucial for the economy and for learners.

A report by the CIPD in 2022 found that only 22% of Scottish firms use further education colleges to deliver training and 52% do not offer any apprenticeships at all. We must fix this.

For every £1 invested in apprenticeships, Scotland receives up to £5 back in tax receipts. Scottish colleges could provide up to £20 billion over the working lives of college graduates each year, with an additional £55,000 boost to productivity for the Scottish economy per graduate.

Reform must not come at the expense of diluting the great aspects of our skills system. As is evident from the statistics, investing in an agile and relevant skills sector directly benefits Scotland’s economy.

A well-funded and aligned skills system, including the colleges sector, is an enabler of the real prize which is continuing to produce the best talent that unlocks our true potential.


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