John McClelland

15th July 2011 at 01:00
Education's halcyon days are over, says the chair of the Scottish Funding Council. The challenge today is implementing changes that leaner times demand, while maintaining quality

How did you become involved in education?

When I was responsible for IBM's operations in Scotland, I had an essential interest in education, training and retraining in the electronics industry. We retrained literally hundreds of people. It involved a couple of universities and a couple of colleges providing on- site tertiary education, effectively to try to start transforming the workforce. It was one of the best examples, I would say immodestly, of industry and the education system coming together to transform skills.

What do you think people should know about you?

I should like to think I would be seen as understanding, pragmatic and reasonably direct in the sense of approaching issues and concerns in a strategic way, but also ensuring that needs are translated into actions. I have little time for circuitous discussion where nothing actually happens. I don't seek change for the sake of it, but where change is required, I would be an advocate of pursuing it.

What do you think is the single biggest challenge facing further and higher education in Scotland at the moment?

It is dealing with a move from a long period of, with hindsight, halcyon days. The biggest net challenge is that organisations have to implement changes that recognise the new financial environment in structures organisationally and physically not used to as much change as they are probably going to see. To be fair to both sectors, principals and their boards have recognised for at least a couple of years these times are coming, but it is easier to plan for this eventuality than to implement it.

As acting chair of Skills Development Scotland, what is your priority?

The priority is two-pronged. One is to address the very obvious needs of training, employment stimulation, skills development in its broadest sense and the prospect of a lost generation. The other prong is a bit more strategic. It is, from a skills development point of view, to be at the forefront of what is happening in Scotland at a macro level. The Scottish Government has set up a strategic forum and it brings together some of the key public bodies involved in skills and economic development. It is really important that SDS plays a key rolein that.

What core skills do young people need in the workplace?

They clearly need some form of academic achievement and, also, if we listen to employers, a focus on employability and employability skills. Programmes and projects like Get Ready for Work are vital from that point of view. I think employers would say communication and soft skills are pretty important. Clearly, economic activity helps bring people into employment, but I think it is easier to employ when people are as well equipped as we can make them, so this is a good investment.

You are also chair of the Scottish Funding Council. What do you see as the main difficulty in allocating funding to further education this year and in the next few years?

It is a question of, how can we get best value for the funding that we have? I don't believe we have too many college locations, but I have gone on the record as saying that we could deliver further education in those locations without having necessarily as many college structures as we have. So one of the challenges for the Funding Council is to work with colleges, as we have been doing, to help them to get to that more streamlined model while, if anything, enhancing learner experience. I'm really optimistic that, despite my describing it as a challenge, work has started and hopefully can be progressed more quickly.

And for higher education?

I think the role of the Scottish Funding Council is to play a supporting role in ensuring that provision is delivered with high quality, that excellence in research is maintained, but that we recognise we need to be sensitive to the cost of the whole system. Recognising the strengths and the virtues of individual institutions is very important. There isn't a simple answer or one-size-fits-all solution for higher education, and given its maturity and the significance of some of the institutions in particular, there is no doubt that a lot of the change - if change is required - has got to come from within.

Do you feel colleges have been disproportionately affected by cuts?

If you look at the 2011-12 financial data - the movement from the past to this current year - then you couldn't say that they have. I guess both sectors (FE and HE) are apprehensive about next year, but from the standpoint of comparing previous years with this year, then for both groups funding came down.

How likely is it that teaching quality in further and higher education is going to suffer from cuts?

I don't think it will. There is such a great ethos of academic quality that quality will be maintained and I'm pretty confident about that. There is always a risk, but I would like to think that if there are cuts being made, they are not cuts that drive quality the wrong way. Certainly in the Scottish Funding Council, we have a responsibility for ensuring there is quality assurance and we are very vigilant about that.


Born: Glasgow, 1945

Education: North Kelvinside Secondary, Glasgow, studied accountancy at a Glasgow FE college

Career: Junior executive trainee at South of Scotland Electricity Board; director of UK manufacturing and vice-president, worldwide manufacturing, at IBM; currently chair of the Scottish Funding Council, acting chair of Skills Development Scotland and vice-chairman of Rangers Football Club.

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