College potential 'constrained by policy'

Colleges are well placed to support businesses – but they could do more if outdated policies were revised, says report

Links to business: Colleges are not living up to their potential when it comes to supporting the economy, two principals have said

Outdated policies are constraining colleges in their ability to support business growth, two principals have recommended in their landmark report.

The report Our Tertiary System: agile, connected, inclusive, written by Audrey Cumberford, principal of Edinburgh College, and Paul Little, principal of City of Glasgow College, was commissioned by the Scottish government’s finance, economy, and fair work secretary to review the economic impact of colleges.


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Colleges and business growth

The study comes eight years after the government’s Putting Learners at the Centre report, which led to significant reform in the Scottish college sector. It concludes that the regionalisation programme that followed the earlier report left colleges well placed to face the challenges at the start of the new millennium.

“The regionalised system created colleges of significant scale and influence, imbuing them with a more influential voice and enabling their leadership to have greater impact in regional and national economies,” it says. The new report cites previous research that identified that colleges’ 2015-16 cohort alone created a boost for the economy of around £3.5 billion, and that over eight years colleges boosted GDP by £21 billion.

However, Ms Cumberford and Mr Little stress that public finances are tighter than ever, and “the UK has left the European Union with as yet unknown consequences”. “The Scottish government and its Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board have identified improving business productivity as a priority, and quite properly want to see all publicly funded bodies align with that ambition," they write.

'Not maximising potential'

Notwithstanding the strengths of the current college system, more can be done to engage with Scottish business of all types, they say – particularly with small and medium enterprises and start-ups “to develop the skills and capacity that will help them become more competitive and to grow”.

“We are not, as yet, maximising the potential of our colleges to support business growth. We contend this is the result of a series of policy and operating measures that, while appropriate for their time, have now become outdated, and are acting as constraints,” the new report says.

The two principals say that the wider learning and skills system of which colleges are a fundamental part “is itself insufficiently aligned to deliver the results the government wants”.

The government should endorse “a compelling narrative setting out the purpose of a 21st-century college” and promote that consistently across government to develop a clear understanding across civic Scotland of what a college is for, the principals say.  

This, they add, should be used to establish “short, multi-year ministerial guidance, focused on core priorities in support of the purpose”, and to “develop a transparent and accessible performance regime directly related to the purpose”. “This should be done by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), working with the sector and other stakeholders,” they say.

“In the context of that work, we are clear the existing target for colleges, focusing on volume, should be replaced by a target that focuses clearly on the impact we want colleges to make,” Ms Cumberford and Mr Little argue.

They also recommend that to allow colleges better to support business and inclusive growth, and given the priority of establishing a coherent, flexible and efficient post-school tertiary system, the current imbalance between the SFC’s college and university strategic funds should be rebalanced.

Coherent tertiary system

The principals, who lead two of the biggest colleges in the UK, add that given the ambition for a coherent tertiary system, the government should also reconsider the “historical balance between the SFC’s university and college ‘core’ funding streams to ensure that the allocation of resource is appropriate for today’s and tomorrow’s economic landscape”.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) should review its post-16 portfolio against the tests of the new college purpose, they say, adding that the development of a two-year college degree, based on the Higher National Diploma with additional work placement content, should be considered.

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “Scotland’s colleges play a crucial role in our education system to support learners and businesses, and are a major national economic driver, and contribute to Scotland’s social fabric – so it is clearly important we ensure they continue to fulfil their significant potential.

“We welcome the hard work by all those involved in producing this report, and we will consider very carefully the recommendations that have been made. We will also listen carefully to the views of the sector and stakeholders on those recommendations.”

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is deputy FE news editor for Tes

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