Deciding what skills students need cannot be solely up to institutions, employers or the government, Scotland’s new FE minister has said.
Speaking to Tes in his first in-depth interview since taking up post, Jamie Hepburn said when deciding the country’s skills needs, one could not be “as rudimentary as ‘one player decides’”.
“It has to be a collective conversation; it has to be a collaborative process. It certainly has to be one that is informed by what our labour market requirements are, but I am not as reductive as to say that the entirety of the education experience,” said the minister.
“It does have to be wider than that. It has to be a process that equips people with a softer skillset for their entire life circumstances that can mean they have a meaningful, productive life in the fullest sense. Undoubtedly, we also need to make sure that we are meeting the various economic and social challenges we face – that has to be an imperative.
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“No one person or no one entity decides that. Government doesn’t decide that on its own, institutions don’t decide that on their own, our employers don’t decide that on their own. It has to be a conversation that has everyone around the preverbial table. That is how I want to move forward.”
“It has to be with an eye to what we require here in Scotland, but we also have to be thinking how do we make sure we operate on the global stage and are taking advantage of the opportunities that presents to us.”
Mr Hepburn was appointed minister for higher education and further education, youth employment and training on 19 May, following the Scottish Parliament election. Previously, he was employment minister with responsibility for apprenticeships.
The first weeks in the new post, he said, were going well. “I am enjoying it. There is a degree of finding your feet but not the entirety is new to me. That has given me a bit of a head start.”
“I haven’t done any in-person visit yet, but I want to do that as soon as possible. I have spoken to nearly every principal, and I have said to them all I am keen to come out and see the activity on the ground. In the previous role I saw lots of great stuff happening in colleges and universities and so I want to get back to that as soon as possible.”
“There is a great coherence and sense in bringing together the entire gamut of the post-school education and skills system in one role,” he said – although he stressed he was still working closely with other ministers, including former FE, HE and science minister Richard Lochhead, now responsible for just transition.
Breadth of opportunity
His new remit, Mr Hepburn said, was one of great interest to him: “Candidly, it is something I became more aware of and alert to when I became minister for employability and training. Now, that is not to say you’re not aware of vocational training, but the breadth of it is something I know most people are not aware of.
“The range of different opportunities through apprenticeships is the most obvious example. It is quite extraordinary. I know people think of it in terms of the traditional trades and of course part of that, but you can do it across a whole range of career opportunities: accountancy is one example people don’t conventionally think you can do as an apprenticeship.
“I have a great interest in it, it can be a life changing thing for folk – I have seen that with many apprentices I have met. You have to be cautious as well, because I have met many apprentices who were straight-A students and could have gone to university, but decided actually, they’d prefer to do an apprenticeship. But there are also some people who maybe didn’t have a great first experience of education and of school who find that form of practical application of training engages them and it has been a transformative experience. I have seen that many, many times.”
Mr Hepburn said vocational education was of “enormous importance” to the Scottish government.
“It is right up there in our agenda in the sense that we know the world is changing around us, that was happening before Covid-19 came along. Economy and society are changing, there are demographic shifts, the fact employers can’t source labour from the European Union as readily as before, the fact that certain parts of the economy are on the wane and there are changing ways of consumption, and of course the big one: technological change and the climate challenge, as well.
“If we are not equipping people with the requisite skillset we are going to have two challenges: First of all, there is the social cost upheaval and the social cost that comes with for them and their communities and the challenges they face as a consequence. Frankly, that is something we can ill afford and cannot afford to see.” Scotland would also face a significant economic cost if people did not receive appropriate training, added the minister.
Capacity for flexibility
The FE sector was performing well, he said, especially considering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. “Everyone has faced challenges in the last year and our education institutions are no different in that regard. What I have seen from them is an enormous capacity for flexibility, for adaptability, to respond to the challenging circumstances we face in terms of how they continue to provide good quality education. I have seen that. I have also seen a real willingness to engage in that fundamental challenge we just spoke up, to play their part in making sure we are responding to some of the fundamental challenges we face and the opportunities that arise out of the changing world we live in.”
Colleges were keen to play their part, he said, in making sure Scotland had an “agile, flexible, skilled population”, and “willing to look at how they might go about doing some things differently in that regard”. “One of the things we have spoken about is how do we provide more short, sharp skills interventions for people who are already in employment. Colleges are saying to me they are up for that. “
Uncertainty regarding the next academic year was among the concerns raised with him by college leaders and students, said Mr Hepburn, and the government was keen to supply that information as soon as possible. “Everyone understands though that this is all contingent on what the public health circumstances are,” he added.
His priority, he said, would be to make sure the sector continued on the journey it was already on, “trying to make sure we have a very person-centred skills sector”.
Mr Hepburn added: “I want a skills sector that is as easy to traverse as possible, that people are as well informed as possible about the opportunities they have. That speaks to the senior school phase, that is where the Developing the Young Workforce activity comes into play, making sure employers can engage with the education environment, making sure young people are aware of the opportunities they have and the skills they need.”