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Look out for opportunity

We have been hearing a lot lately about the drive to tackle Scotland's skills shortages. Glasgow City Council is promising a modern apprenticeship to every school leaver, while the Scottish Government has announced a new MA in life sciences, along with the expansion in construction and engineering MAs.

This focus on skills and training provision is to be welcomed. But what does it all mean for colleges? Given that 80 per cent of modern apprentices visit a college as part of their training, and that Scotland's colleges provide training for around 360,000 students a year, they are bound to play a pivotal role in the success of any new training initiative.

However, fulfilling that role may not always be as straightforward as it first appears. Scotland's colleges face the ongoing challenges presented by capped student units of measurement (SUMs), which has meant we have been unable to grow in real terms for the past seven years. Within that climate, our remit is expanding and now covers courses from Access level through to tailored business solutions.

We play an important role in addressing the attainment gap, working with unemployed and disenfranchised people, young and old. We also support the rapidly expanding economy by ensuring the right skills are available to meet business needs. All this means that, while pledging greater numbers of modern apprenticeships may be an answer to the skills problem, it certainly isn't the whole story.

Since becoming principal of West Lothian College, where we have the duality of the fastest growing economy in Scotland combined with a high proportion of young people in need of "more choices, more chances", I have quickly realised there are a range of opportunities available to Scotland's colleges that can help us meet the needs of 21st-century Scotland.

I believe the answer lies in looking outwards. Understanding the external landscape at local, national and international level will give us the opportunity to assess the requirements of our various stakeholders and respond to them accordingly.

Looking outwards means we can identify partners who are open to new projects, employers with whom we can engage, and existing programmes to which we may be able to add value. We need to see ourselves as flexible organisations which can respond quickly to meet the needs of our students, business partners and the economy. And we need to recognise that we can't do this alone.

In doing so, I believe we can successfully attract more learners and develop more highly-skilled students. In turn, this would attract more investors to the college and encourage higher levels of economic aspiration among our students.

It would enable us to meet the demands of an expanding local economy, while also providing aspirational opportunities for our young people, particularly those who may be disengaged. Ultimately, this approach would give us greater ability to meet customer needs - both students and business.

I would caution against the introduction of blanket initiatives that imply a certain level of delivery to a particular formula. Since colleges have been denied the ability to develop capacity to respond to such initiatives, they should be able to work within a framework to propose locally-tailored, flexible solutions to the skills problem. In this way, we can really start to get serious about increasing skills, raising attainment levels and giving our support to the expanding economy.

Mhairi Laughlin is principal of West Lothian College.

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