A missed opportunity

5th August 2011 at 01:00

Recent criticisms of Strathclyde University, for initiating talks with the private sector company INTO to recruit and teach overseas students, place emphasis and indignation in possibly the wrong places.

There is little or no prospect of the university privatising its functions. But there is a real possibility that Scotland's tertiary sector, particularly its colleges and agencies, have missed a massive opportunity. Again!

The damage is likely to be widespread and permanent. The fundamental question is why Strathclyde University should feel the need to approach a private provider. The university is surrounded by, and in touching distance of, some of Scotland's most prominent colleges.

Strathclyde University has the right to secure the most appropriate flow of international students of relevant quality. The issue is why Scotland's colleges have been unable to convince this university that they should be the provider of choice. This is one of the most significant marketincome opportunities available to the college sector. It has passed it by. Why the apparent melodrama?

- International activity through Scotland's colleges has been promoted as a major agenda item, both by colleges themselves and political supporters. Yet here, an obvious opportunity for a Scotland brand has been missed. It gets worse: Glasgow University (with Kaplan) and Glasgow Caledonian University (with INTO) have pre-existing arrangements. The sector has had sufficient warning;

- Very significant investment in the development of international activity has been undertaken by colleges themselves, and on their behalf. What price the much-vaunted - and certainly over-capitalised and over-valued - Scotland's Colleges International body (now subsumed within Scotland's Colleges)?;

- Despite high profile and keynote agency involvement, a major opportunity has been missed on our own doorstep. Scotland Development International (SDI) - the inward investment body attached to Scottish Enterprise - nominated export promotion of education as a priority. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has consistently emphasised that international activity is an important part of its business growth and collateral opportunity for colleges and universities. Once again, SQA looks inert, possibly inept.

Scotland's colleges have pushed international activity individually and collectively. Why on earth are colleges being overlooked in the same year as they were recognised by SCDI for their international contributions? Something is not right.

It does not pay to dwell on the paradox of a supposedly coherent system (as per the rhetoric of the Scottish Funding Council) failing to engage with itself and to the detriment of all parties. It might, however, be worthwhile contemplating whether at a time of colleges being involved in discussions re number, size and structure, then introspection and defensive positioning are slowing their reactions.

Professor Bill Wardle, Southbrae Drive, Jordanhill, Glasgow.

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