It's time for a fair share

9th May 2014 at 01:00

I was reviewing some knowledge exchange activities the other day and spotted something very odd. It wasn't what was there that made me pause, but what was missing.

Knowledge exchange in Scotland has received hundreds of millions of pounds from various sources in recent years, including the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). A key focus is often the exchange of knowledge between university and business research units.

What struck me as odd was the paucity of references to significant knowledge exchange activities between the university and college sectors. Only very modest priority appears to be given to encouraging this. Here's why this should change.

First, the SFC was established after an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament's Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee. Uniting university and college funding bodies was expected to lead to greater cooperation and joinedup thinking. Yet knowledge exchange funding policies seem to have been developed with little regard for the role of the further education sector.

Second, colleges no less than universities exist in a fast-changing world and need to stay at the forefront of learning. Having access to research findings is increasingly important. Indeed, as others have argued, an organisation can remain relevant and effective only in proportion to its ability to learn fast enough. This requires easy access to new knowledge.

Third, universities could learn a great deal from colleges. This could of course be in obvious areas such as teaching methods and access for the socio-economically disadvantaged. But much more can be done. Both universities and colleges engage with businesses, for example, but typically bring different skills and expertise to the table. Considerable scope exists for enhancing support for enterprise. Colleges and universities could also work together on education research, particularly in the areas of vocational education and personal development.

I am not arguing that knowledge exchange between universities and the business community should be reduced - far from it. But the focus needs to be wider.

There are educational reasons for this, too. The drive to enhance progression routes - including strengthened articulation arrangements - calls for a recognition of the knowledge overlap between the university and college sectors. Indeed, one criticism from some university academics is precisely that students recruited via colleges often arrive ill-equipped in terms of up-to-date knowledge for higher-level study. If that is so, perhaps something might be done about it through knowledge exchange activities.

Roger Mullin is an honorary professor at the University of Stirling, a former member of the Scottish government change team and an adviser on post-16 educational reform

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