Employers are quietly exerting a growing influence on qualifications in Scotland.
What was described as a ground-breaking agreement was signed last week between Scotland's Colleges and the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils, the training voice of employers in 25 different occupations, ranging from food and drink to education.
Their collaboration was personally brokered over dinner by Fiona Hyslop, the Education and Lifelong Learning Secretary, towards the end of last year. A similar agreement is expected to be struck between the skills councils and Universities Scotland.
It follows an earlier deal between the skills bodies and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which Ms Hyslop openly acknowledged last week put employers "in the driving seat in qualifications design and development". It would ensure "that employers influence the design of all SQA qualifications".
The voice of business has been represented for many years in decisions about qualifications, particularly in relation to vocational awards such as HNCs and HNDs, but their reach now appears to be extending significantly.
However, Ms Hyslop, in an address to a national skills conference in Glasgow last week, made it clear that, while employers will have more influence through their sector skills councils, "they will not have a role in approving qualifications in the way proposed in England."
The partnership statement by the FE colleges and the skills councils states that, in strengthening the voice of employers, "they will not seek to impose additional layers of quality assurance on colleges".
Unusually for such agreements, it is as strong on action points as on rhetoric. Among the undertakings by colleges is to develop "bite-sized learning" for employers to use in the workplace, qualifications which would then be given a rating so they could sit alongside others in the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework.
This was strongly endorsed by Ms Hyslop. Later, Aileen Ponton, chief executive of the SCQF, confirmed that, during the coming year, industry-based awards, professional qualifications and continuing professional development would be brought into the framework.
The need for closer links between skills and qualifications developed in schools, universities, colleges and the workplace was underlined by Jack Matthews, who chairs the newly formed Alliance of Sector Skills Councils in Scotland and is chief executive of Improve, the skills council for the food and drinks industries. It was essential to tackle the "conundrum" that high academic and vocational achievement in Scotland had not led to high productivity and economic growth, he said.
Figures presented to the conference showed that Scotland was "smarter" but not "wealthier," two of the five policy planks of the SNP Government. Its overall score in the recent international PISA survey ranked it second highest among the countries belonging to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development - but its wealth in terms of income per head, at $30,816, was the lowest among the so-called "arc of prosperity" nations (the Nordic countries and Ireland).
Ms Hyslop has placed this mismatch of "skills utilisation" at the top of the lifelong learning agenda in Scotland, another example of her increasingly hands-on approach in this area. The topic was the central theme on Tuesday when she hosted a meeting between business and academic leaders. A skills paper distilling the outcome of these discussions will be on the table for the August meeting of the First Minister's national economic forum - an indication of the key place skills now occupies in the Government's thinking.
Willy Roe, chair of Skills Development Scotland, told The TESS that an investigation of skills utilisation would be the first main task his agency would be tackling, along with the Scottish Funding Council and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. "We don't really know what the problem is," he added. It could be a combination of employees' attitudes to their skills, how the workplace is managed, lack of employer engagement with qualifications design, poor stimulus for business growth, and the environment in which learning takes place.
Mr Roe said he hoped that SDS and the Scottish Funding Council would reach agreement on setting up a joint research and innovation programme, and that skills utilisation would be its first piece of work.