Scotland's leading university economists are urging the Scottish Government to target funding on higher education, rather than schools or colleges. They argue this is the best way to help the country turn round its economic fortunes.
In a highly controversial report, What WasWhat Next01?, published today by Universities Scotland, a panel of economists argues that in future, the demand will be not for mid-level skills, such as apprenticeships, but for high-level skilled graduates and postgraduates - and more of them.
Scotland's future economic competitiveness will rely not on school-level skills, but on whether Scotland can grow replacement industries which require a postgraduate and graduate workforce, it argues. "Rather than skew investment further towards sub-degree level education, the evidence suggests that Scotland should in fact move investment towards university- level education," says the report.
A spokesman for Universities Scotland told The TESS: "The assumption that just putting money into schools will of itself bring economic rewards is not supported."
Universities Scotland insists the report is "explicitly not about universities or their funding needs but is about harnessing the knowledge and expertise within our institutions to come up with answers to difficult questions".
It challenges the assumption that Scotland already has a comparatively highly-educated workforce, and argues the case for more graduates.
As the country moves out of recession, the economists predict a greater polarisation of skills, or an "hour-glass" model, with bulges at the higher and lower end of the range, and narrowing in the middle.
"There is sometimes an indiscriminate assumption that all vocational (taken to mean post-school, non-university) education must be good for the economy. There will be little demand for intermediate vocational level skills. There is already strong evidence of saturation and over-supply in Scotland."
It goes on, worryingly for the most recent Scottish Government commitment to increase apprenticeships: "More apprenticeships could only be predicated on increased demand from the construction sector (the opposite of what is likely to happen in the medium and long-term.)"
The report's argument runs that in economic terms (as distinct from social benefit terms), pumping more money into Scottish secondary education will not give Scotland an advantage over countries like China.
It calls on schools to make young people more innovative in their thinking - a finding that chimes with the philosophy of A Curriculum for Excellence.
The economists argue that Scotland cannot compete with many other countries on labour costs or in the general service sector, such as call centres. "They can train large numbers of graduates in China, but they don't have the innovative thinking, informed by research, that we have," said a spokesman for Universities Scotland.
There had to be a move away from young people believing in the "entrepreneurial thing" - the idea that anyone can start up a business as long as they have confidence in themselves. "For this generation, the role model has to be less of the retail entrepreneurs of the '90s and more of the technological entrepreneurs such as Dyson and Gates," the spokesman said.
"Inquisitive kids are what we need - not over-confident kids. Confidence without substance is not the solution."
The report recommends that the drive to grow the economy will come from targeting science, technology, engineering, maths, the creative industries, and the health and care sectors. No consensus has emerged from the economists on the place of languages.
If accepted by the Scottish Government, the report is likely to have implications for the shaping of the school curriculum, but also for higher education. A focus on science, technology, engineering and maths will mean expansion in these areas. On the other hand, they could be hit by the shrinking financial services industry which has been fed by graduates from a number of disciplines.
Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, welcomed the report, saying it was based on evidence and had identified the need to build higher-level cognitive skills in young people. It should not be seen as making an argument for drawing money away from the secondary sector, he believed. Secondary schools still needed investment in buildings and in developing the curriculum which would deliver the kind of young people the universities were looking for, he argued: "In that sense, we are singing off the same hymn sheet as the universities. We want resources targeted in areas where they get best value."