Why colleges are the key to a fairer, greener economy

Colleges produce educated, skilled and adaptable people – and they are vital in tackling inequality, says Liz McAreavey

Liz McAreavey

Coronavirus: Why colleges are key to a greener, fairer economy

The rollout of the biggest vaccination programme our nation has ever seen marks – we hope – the beginning of the end of the Covid-19 pandemic with all the havoc and grief it has caused in terms of human lives and livelihoods.

The outlook for our economy has seldom seemed more uncertain, with those deadly enemies of business: uncertainty and loss of confidence.

And yet, some scrutiny reveals that many sectors in our economy have shown great resilience in the face of this onslaught. While those most dependent on footfall – notably tourism, non-food retail and hospitality – have taken a battering, others like our financial services sector, our technology sector, fintech, biotech and creative industries have fared better.


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It’s a clear indicator of our future direction as a city – to be resilient, we need educated, skilled, adaptable people to occupy the high-skilled jobs that drive innovation and resilience. And in Edinburgh, we are fortunate that we do.

A vision for the future of colleges

In a report on the world’s best-educated cities, global consultants JLL identified that Edinburgh was in the top five, with more than 51 per cent educated to degree level.

Citing the city as a leading centre for higher and further education, the report said: “Edinburgh boasts a growing, youthful demographic, with 35 percent of the population aged between 20 and 40 – more than any other European city.”

This age group is also growing faster in Edinburgh than in other major UK cities. Around a quarter of Scots who go on to achieve degrees enter via our colleges. And, of course, vocational and technical education is vitally important in its own right.

The Independent Commission on the College of the Future has set out its vision for the future of colleges in Scotland. The new report published last month, The Scottish College of the Future, sets out recommendations to empower the sector to deliver more strategically on skills and innovation support for “new jobs, good jobs and green jobs”, Great for learners, and great for business.

It will make learning more accessible and more flexible, with funding that is fair to all. It will drive closer alignment between policy and investment in universities and colleges. And it will drive innovation through deeper links with employers and through a network of innovation hubs. 

With around 26,000 students, Edinburgh College plays a significant role in educating our young people and preparing them for the future world of work. It has more than 700 courses, many offering access to degree level, around its four campuses.

Close links with business and the city’s universities help to create connections that ensure that our young people can enjoy the best quality of access to learning and training. The net result is that 98 per cent of the college graduates go on to work or further study within eight months.

As well as creating educated, skilled and adaptable people, there is another reason why our colleges have a central role to play in Scotland’s economic recovery, another reason why this report is important to our business community.

Tackling economic inequality

Edinburgh is a powerhouse of the Scottish economy with the region contributing over 30 per cent of the national economy. It is one of the most productive cities in the UK with the second-highest gross value added (GVA) per capita (£44,250, behind London at £48,900 and against an average for Scotland of £25,500).

This success all contributes to Edinburgh’s projection of a population growth of 1 per cent per annum for the next 30 years (double the national average), suggesting it will be the most populous city in Scotland by 2045.

And yet we are not without problems. Over 25 per cent of children in our city live in poverty – figures published in April 2020 show that almost 12,000 children in Edinburgh are living below the breadline – and 71 per cent of these are in families where at least one parent is working.

Edinburgh also has inherent economic inequality amongst our citizens. We have a "double hump" economy, with a high number of people earning low wages (14 per cent earn below the living wage of £9) and a high number of people earning high wages (the second-highest average earnings in the UK behind London), with little in between.

We need to address the dip between the curves, creating more mid-salary jobs and supporting businesses to provide these. Upskilling our capability is an enabler in allowing people to move between the curves in a way that currently is not possible, and to start and grow their own businesses, too. 

Without our colleges unshackled to realise their deep potential in 2021, our chances of creating the fairer, greener economy that would benefit us all will be diminished.

Liz McAreavey is chief executive of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce

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