Dreams of a free FE
The referendum on Scottish independence is fast approaching, but little attention has been paid to its relevance to the college sector. Presumably, with a No vote, it would be business as usual, but what if there is a Yes vote? Well, here are some changes I would like to see.
Approximately pound;500 million is currently received as tax relief for employee education and training by organisations that pay corporation tax in Scotland. This is equivalent to the entire public funding for colleges in Scotland. Most of the relief is for already qualified individuals pursuing non-accredited training. But this focus is at odds with government policy. An independent Scotland could refocus such relief on indigenous small and medium enterprises, those with no or low skills. This would help to create a virtuous circle, stimulating employer engagement with colleges.
Currently, employment and housing benefits are tied to restricted hours of study, which means, in effect, that people are funded to stay at home rather than study. Ending this mismatch would benefit individuals, colleges and the wider economy.
It is wrongly assumed that our colleges are the same as those in England. In Scotland, colleges deliver more than 20 per cent of higher education, and the lack of understanding about this works against us in competing for EU higher education funding. But, as an independent member state, we would have access to centralised EU funds. At present, it is common for organisations claiming UK-wide coverage to be awarded funds, despite having no credible base in Scotland and being completely disconnected from Scottish policy.
Also, most EU funding programmes require three member states to work together. An independent Scotland would be free to develop projects with Ireland and any one of England, Wales or Northern Ireland.
With independence, the UK Visas and Immigration service's "highly trusted status" system would need replacing. It would be in Scotland's interest to make it much easier for foreign students to study at our universities and colleges.
At the same time, the Scottish government should reintroduce the post-study work visa. This would further encourage talented people from around the world to continue their education in Scotland, bringing income to our institutions and adding to the local economy and community.
In recent times, modest funding from Scottish governments to Malawi led to a number of support initiatives by the Scottish college sector. A fully funded international development programme would allow these initiatives to be replicated elsewhere. Having worked on 27 such assignments, I can testify to the need for college-level support.
It probably goes without saying that I am an optimist regarding colleges should there be a Yes vote.
Roger Mullin is an honorary professor at the University of Stirling and an adviser on post-16 educational reform