As a public investment, we're value for money

Bill Wardle

On the table at the moment lies a review of Scotland's colleges being undertaken by the Scottish Executive and involving wide stakeholder participation.

We also have the Learning for Life report produced by the former further and higher education funding councils, which has implications for how inclusion can be taken further. And we have the recent publication of performance statistics by the Higher Education Statistics Agency relating to student retention and achievement in higher education institutions.

Taking these items separately, we have, through the review, a questioning of the fundamental importance of colleges. The sector is in good health, but this does seem an appropriate moment to take stock of the scope of provision in relation to desired impact.

The answer is an equivocal one. Colleges are highly responsive, which is the essence of the sector, but we may be approaching the outer limits of that responsiveness, unless there are new approaches to levels of funding.

Within a single funding council, colleges are undoubtedly going to be more forthright on comparability, if not parity, of funding, given the range of their contributions to social and economic welfare.

With the advent of a single funding council, undoubtedly some items previously off the colleges' radar will come within range and will require answers in terms of compliance and achievement. For example, colleges are debating vigorously and intelligently among themselves the implications of such agenda items as research, knowledge transfer and internationalisation.

Some of the items have always affected colleges and all of them have engaged some colleges, but now there are expectations for the sector to engage with these areas as part of normal business.

For research, there are capacity issues for the colleges. They weren't set up to do this. But there may be vigorous local demand for just the kind of close and detailed research that can be undertaken by colleges.

In respect of knowledge transfer, the colleges will build on that research knowledge and client base so as to push out expertise and to help give the Scottish economy some protection against low business start-up rates and high new business mortality. These seem to be the key areas, rather than waves of skilling for imaginary large-scale, broad-front inward investment.

Internationalisation has always attracted some colleges as an "earner". Frankly, we had institutions participating in the international arena rather than genuine internationalisation. However, as a sector we have woken to the fact that we have mature and developed views on vocational education and can make significant provision for other countries.

The challenge will lie in choreographing our deployment and translating our experience into different locations in ways which are appropriate to developmental needs. But before we can work successfully with overseas partners, we have to find means of working together.

While the range of what the colleges do will be extended, the residual activities that colleges undertake currently will not and cannot be reduced. To remind ourselves, there are manifest achievements in respect of numbers of students and the performance of those students. The pace is set and cannot be relinquished. Learning for Life makes this clear.

Inclusion will continue to be a major issue. There are ongoing issues in terms of participation and no assumptions can be made. In addition, the demographic deficit experienced by Scotland can be corrected partially only by substantial inward migration. Initially, this will be mass and pretty raw talent as opposed to the finished, Fresh Talent version. The colleges will therefore have a fundamental role incorporating these groups into the social and economic mainstream.

Inclusion is only a part, but perhaps the most significant part, of a learning journey for individuals. Here the impact of the colleges continues to be paramount. The recent publication of retention and achievement rates in higher education institutions, when set against the published indicators on student performance in colleges, shows that for many students in HE the prospects of sustaining and succeeding are significantly higher if the learning is undertaken in a college.

Scotland is proud of its high proportion of students undertaking HE in its colleges, but it needs to face up to some worrying distortions of the much vaunted Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). Bluntly, several prominent HE institutions do not recognise the currency of credit transfer. There are disturbingly high drop-out rates for students progressing from HND to degree programmes in universities.

Taking all these diverse factors into account, the return for public investment in colleges is high. We must encourage recognition of this.

Involvement in further and higher education at any level, even the most basic exposure to literacy and numeracy, produces improved personal and pro-social behaviour. We impact the political agenda of health and crime as well as the economy.

Bill Wardle is principal of James Watt College in Greenock.

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