Colleges should add business consultancy to their existing education and training roles to maximise their impact on economic productivity, according to a new report.
The review of the Scottish economy, training and skills by the Goodison Group, which was co-founded by Sir Nicholas Goodison, former chairman of the London Stock Exchange, challenges the prevailing view that simply boosting skills levels in the workforce is sufficient to substantially raise economic productivity.
A number of reports have made a strong link between the two. The Leitch report, for example, was commissioned by the Government to find the optimal skills mix to increase productivity.
But according to the Goodison report, while Scotland is the only UK country where highly skilled people outnumber those with no skills, its productivity is only in the middle of the UK range.
In a message that has implications for all UK training providers, the group said Scottish colleges were producing many highly skilled people, but they needed to focus on boosting productivity by engaging more directly with businesses.
Brian Stevens, a founder of the group and chairman of lifelong learning consultancy FEdS, said colleges could provide more consultancy services to help businesses make better use of staff and technology as well as training staff in better management techniques.
"Colleges are very good at the learning and skills side, but it would be helpful if lecturers saw where their work fitted into the envelope of productivity," he said.
"They can do other things such as advising on the proper use of equipment and technology. Some colleges are developing consultancies and have a fantastic opportunity to provide that for business."
The report said skills contribute only 25 per cent to productivity, which is heavily dependent on things such as the management of the workforce and the effective use of machinery and technology.
Neil Cuthbert, public affairs adviser for the Association of Scotland's Colleges, said: "Generally speaking, I think colleges have tried to have good links with local employers and make sure their programmes reflect the local economy. It's not just about being industry specific, but about equipping people to adapt to the future."
The UK Commission for Employment and Skills is also researching the relationship between skills and productivity. It has completed a literature review and will also produce case studies and policy recommendations for the Government.
Lesley Giles, its deputy director, said that colleges could help staff develop their skills in response to technological change or restructuring of industries.
"Each of the UK administrations would like to raise productivity and tackle skills, but raising skills levels is not enough in its own right. Further work is needed on how employers use those skills in the workplace," she said.