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Summer Series Blog - John Edward

John Edward photoWelcome 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. John Edward is the Head of Operations at the Scottish Council on Global Affairs. Enjoy Blog 4.

It’s 25 years since the (re)establishment of the Scottish Parliament. There has been much focus since on the key devolved domestic policies, not least education. Equally, there has been a growing sense of what an actor like Scotland can contribute in soft power, influence and education overseas.

For a country with a long tradition of respecting the value of education, from a school in every parish to some of the UK’s first universities, one element in this international presence can be too easily over-looked – Scotland’s colleges. This is despite those colleges having been at the forefront of reorganisation and modernisation in education since devolution began, and the firm international consensus that skills-based training, with vocational focus, supports the workforce that an increasingly complex and shifting global economy requires.

In a report in May 2023, the World Economic Forum[1] made clear that:
“A skills-first approach focuses on whether a person has the right skills and competencies for a particular role, rather than having the right degree, job history or previous job titles. It means that businesses get the skills they actually need for a particular job.”

At the same time, the World Bank[2] has stressed that to succeed in the 21st century labour market requires a comprehensive skill set composed of cognitive, socio-emotional, technical and digital skills. With 26 colleges operating in 13 regions across Scotland, Scotland’s colleges have a substantial part to play in this – both in raising the international horizons of those from Scotland, but also attracting those from across the world who wish to equip themselves for today’s modern workforce.

The College Development Network report on “Internationalisation Across the Scottish College Sector” looked at Scotland’s subject specialism and strengths and showed how closely they aligned with the Scottish Government’s own strategy, “A Trading Nation – A Plan for Growing Scotland’s Exports”. There is depth in Scottish provision in key areas such as engineering, low carbon technology, food & drink, tourism, creative industries, and increasingly the space sector. All of these demonstrate an interest from applicants recognising that colleges are in close alignment with the skills the world of employment needs.

The international offer from the college sector is already substantial, both in terms of college partnerships and in student numbers. 217 nationalities are currently studying in Scotland. Some colleges already have international partnerships, and internationally recognised courses – such as the City of Glasgow College Maritime Education and Training. However, while numbers have grown from the rest of the UK, and from beyond Europe, in the last five years, the number from Europe including the EU has halved – no doubt as a result of the potential new barriers that EU withdrawal has erected.
UK immigration policy is proving a barrier to maximising student recruitment overseas. Combined with the impacts of EU withdrawal, such policies present a greater restriction than the complete freezing of student mobility and recruitment that came about with Covid-19. As such, Scotland’s colleges need to be an integral part of any Scottish international policies, including the new Connections Framework. They also need to be as central a part of International Education policies for Scotland and the UK as universities and residential schools are.

The World Economic Forum estimates that 1 billion people globally will need to be reskilled before 2030. At the same time, Scottish young people will be making new and different choices following the pandemic. Scotland’s colleges are well-placed to position Scotland globally as a skills-rich country, feeding the industries and roles of the 21st century, and meeting all those needs. There is no better time, or opportunity.

1 Putting Skills First: A Framework for Action, May 2023.

Links: Scottish Council on Global Affairs / @edwardineurope


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