England can draw strength from the Scottish experience

The impact of the pandemic and the long-term challenges facing the economy and wider society make the role of colleges doubly important, writes Professor Alice Brown
14th December 2020, 6:05pm
Alice Brown

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England can draw strength from the Scottish experience

https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/general/england-can-draw-strength-scottish-experience
England Can Learn From Scotland, Says Professor Alice Brown

The strength of the college network in Scotland is something to be proud of. That's why I'm so pleased to see the publication of a new report from the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, which powerfully endorses it. This report is a timely reminder of the vital public asset our colleges represent in local communities throughout Scotland and the support they provide for our businesses and the wider economy at regional and national level. The way they have supported their communities throughout the pandemic so far should be commended.

Over the past decade, we have laid the foundations for a much more coherent post-school, tertiary system in Scotland with the potential to deliver on the twin objectives of enhancing social mobility and building a high-skill modern economy.


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And at a time when our colleagues south of the border are reflecting on the English college system, I am clear that there are a number of strengths to draw from our experiences and approach in Scotland.

As a former chair of the Scottish Funding Council I was fortunate enough to visit colleges across Scotland and to witness first-hand the valuable contribution they make to improving the lives of people in their communities and of the students who come to Scotland from different parts of the world. I witnessed also just how colleges have a key part to play in addressing inequality and enhancing social mobility, providing opportunities and choices for all, and contributing to economic development.

I can speak from personal experience, too, as someone who had such an opportunity to return to study at a college in Edinburgh in later life - an experience that has literally been life changing. Having left school at 15 to work in the insurance industry, like many women of my generation, I left full-time work when I became a mother. In my mid thirties I decided to attend night-school classes and gained the necessary Highers to apply for a place at the University of Edinburgh.

There were no such things as defined access courses in those days, but there was a strong philosophy and commitment to lifelong learning and to providing real opportunities for people to progress through the education system or upskill and reskill during their working lives.

Later, my first teaching experience was at a college, running daytime classes in industrial relations for Youth Opportunity Scheme students and nighttime classes in economics for engineering apprentices. I taught too on the day-release classes in trade union studies, which included people from a wide range of working backgrounds. Such experience was invaluable to me when I went on to pursue my career in the university sector.

I never tire of telling people what an undervalued asset our colleges are and how much they contribute to the social and economic fabric of our communities. This report comes at a time when the impact of the pandemic and the long-term challenges facing the economy and wider society make the role of colleges doubly important in charting a path to recovery.

The fundamental challenges we face, though, have not changed since the Independent Commission on the College of the Future was launched last spring: the climate crisis, technological developments, demographic changes, poor productivity and endemic regional and social inequalities remain top of the agenda. The huge difference is that the pandemic makes addressing them all the more immediate and brings them into even starker focus.

The issues set out in this report - from creating an even more integrated and connected tertiary system to amplifying the role of colleges as a strategic support to employers across innovation and skills - must therefore be front and centre of the policy agenda, in Scotland and indeed elsewhere too. As we seek to achieve a skills-led recovery to the ongoing health and economic crises, and to rebuild healthy, connected, and cohesive communities within a more confident, forward-looking economy, the time is now.

I believe this report presents the right balance of opportunities and challenges facing us here in Scotland in responding to the huge social and economic changes that lie ahead. It also puts forward a road map for shaping a more joined-up education system over the next decade to the benefit of citizens and businesses alike.

More than anything, I am confident that this report will galvanise debate on the future role of colleges. This is a rallying cry for radical and decisive action to enable them to play their full part in a more joined-up, all-age education and skills system, allowing individuals to have greater agency and opportunities throughout their lives, to develop their potential and contribute to society.

I have no doubt, therefore, that colleges will have a central role in providing new opportunities for people and in helping to rebuild communities as we come out of the extraordinary circumstances and restrictions that the pandemic has imposed on us all. Our colleges can offer the flexibility of delivery, open access, quality of experience and physical facilities that will be of real value as the world changes.

Professor Alice Brown is a former chair of the Scottish Funding Council. She is chancellor of Abertay University and emeritus professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh

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