As she walks into the meeting room where we meet, Karen Watt, the new chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council, cannot stop herself from glancing at the TV screen on the wall, which is showing the latest Brexit developments. In the months running up to her appointment to her SFC post, her professional life was dominated by the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
As director of external affairs for the Scottish government, she led its international relations and response to the aftermath of the EU referendum – a role that involved attending high-profile meetings and helping to shape the country’s public response to the vote. It was the most recent of a string of government posts for Watt, who came to Scotland from Northern Ireland as a student and whose first job following her undergraduate degree was managing a newsagent.
Making lives better
“The careers advice at university said [I should go into] accountancy, and so I went into a job centre and took the first job that was pinned to the wall," Watt says. "McColl's was looking for a manager at a newsagent. And so I did that. I have had a number of chunks of a career, and the first was housing and regeneration. We forget one in four people live in social housing. My job was about how to make the lives of people who live in those sorts of houses better.”
Watt was the first chief executive of the Scottish Housing Regulator, which aims to improve housing and homelessness services and secure private sector investment into new and improved affordable homes.
Her move into government was, she admits, not the result of careful planning, but rather a chance encounter. A former colleague told her the first minister was looking for a private secretary and suggested she should apply.
The transition into the job was not without challenge. “That was really difficult, because I had never worked in government," Watt recalls. "From there, I went into economic development and latterly into external affairs. Then the EU referendum happened.”
Her CV shows, she believes, “a big thread of public service and how you contribute to better outcomes for people”. When the role as the chief executive of the SFC, which invests around £1.8 billion of public money in colleges and universities every year, was advertised, it was “utterly irresistible”, she says.
“The SFC has such an important role to play. It is also such a lot of public money and it needs to be invested carefully.” She took up her post in January, and says she has spent the first few weeks in “listening mode”, meeting college and university staff, as well as students, across Scotland.
So what has Watt learned? “I do hugely believe that this is a sector that contributes massively to economic development, as well as everything else. I have been utterly blown away by being out and about and meeting people in colleges, universities and our specialist institutions. I spent most of my first months in the college sector, and I was just utterly amazed by the commitment to our young people and their mission, and their links with employers.
"We also talk about innovation within our universities, but I went into classes and found the colleges were a couple of leaps ahead of employers and those young people were then going into employers, pushing them to do more. I have found that quite inspiring.
“The biggest surprise has been the sheer level of ambition at colleges and universities. There is a massive appetite to be at the heart of that journey we are on.”
Many and varied challenges
The SFC’s function is not simply that of a funding body. For FE, for example, it also holds institutions to account through outcome agreements – the agreements between the SFC and college regions that set out what those regions are expected to deliver in return for their funding. It also holds extensive amounts of data on the sector and is instrumental in the development of a range of initiatives, such as innovation centres.
The challenges, she adds, are varied: there are fewer young people coming into the education system, alongside an ageing population and the growing importance of enabling adults to reskill for the changing job market. "The pace of change is really increasing,” she adds.
Watt says the SFC needs to get better at being vocal about its own successes, along with those of the sector. “The SFC employs a very dedicated bunch of people who do really amazing things. All of that has been my first impression – [the job is all about] the amazing stuff people are doing and getting to shout about it a bit more."
'Champion and challenger'
One area of focus for Watt has been working closely with Skills Development Scotland, the organisation responsible for apprenticeships and careers advice in Scotland. “We are recruiting a joint skills alignment post at senior level and that position will report to both chief executives," she explains. "We also have teams that work together.”
But the key question for Watt is: what is the role of the SFC? The answer, she believes, is two-fold: it needs to be “both a champion [for] and a challenger to this sector”. And it also needs to break down the divide between colleges and universities. “That is incredibly challenging, but it is also so important," Watt continues. "I am a person who believes in life-long learning. This polarisation between the college and the university sector – I don’t think we can look at it like that any more, so I am working with Skills Development Scotland quite a lot to look at that.
"We need to take a whole-system approach. I do think colleges and universities are rising to that challenge and Scotland is leading the way, rising to that social challenge. The SFC needs to use its convening power to say, 'We face this collectively and how do we deal with that?'”