Business collaboration is key, say educators

The link between R&D and skills is key, as Data Lab found
The link between R&D and skills is key, as Data Lab found
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Education: Anna Dove finds out how colleges are being integrated into Scotland’s innovation and enterprise ecosystem

Businesses are increasingly taking steps to embrace innovation – indeed some came on board right when the term first started gaining momentum and are already leading the way – but for that trend to continue, collaboration is key.

Audrey Cumberford

Audrey Cumberford

Until recently, the focus has been on collaboration between businesses and universities, matching industry skills with academic expertise with the aim of inspiring research and development (R&D), creating high-value jobs and growing Scotland’s economy.

But according to Audrey Cumberford, principal at West College Scotland, there was one ingredient missing from what would otherwise have been the perfect cocktail of innovation and entrepreneurialism.

Throw Scotland’s 26 colleges into the mix and they open doors to countless opportunities which can only stem from the vocational, technical and professional system.

An action plan has been put in place by the Scottish Funding Council’s (SFC) College Innovation Working Group, which Cumberford chairs, to ignite collaboration between colleges and businesses. This includes bringing colleges more into the community of Scotland’s eight Innovation Centres (ICs).

Since the launch of the Innovation Centre programme in 2012 – to which SFC has committed up to £120 million over six years from 2013-2019 – Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) – eight ICs have been introduced to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship across Scotland’s key economic sectors.

Now it’s a case of connecting colleges into the innovation chain – as encouraged in the 2016 Reid Review of the original vision, aims and objectives of the Innovation Centre programme – by working with businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to establish how they can grow and by tailoring vocational courses so that they equip students with the skills that are vital to driving that growth, whether that’s embracing automation or robotics, or looking at new ways to reuse and recycle construction materials.

“College innovation, in terms of a definition, is where the vocational, technical and professional system – Scotland’s colleges – is supporting businesses to develop new skills and techniques alongside new and emerging technologies to support those businesses to be more productive,” says Cumberford.

“If you think about innovation, it is often talked about within the context of R&D and universities working with businesses. If we train the workforce and the up-and-coming workforce, they will leave the sector with the right skills to match the outcomes of that R&D.

“For me, it seems obvious. We are spending all this money on R&D so we have to make sure that the skills of our workforce are actually being developed in parallel with that.”

Possibly the most valuable asset Scotland’s colleges bring to the table is their partnerships with SMEs. It is something which Cumberford says isn’t so prevalent in the universities.

These are small, local firms which take on college students for placements and apprenticeships, and give them access to live projects which help them to develop their practical skills.

“What we should be doing is using that unique reach that the colleges have into SME businesses to support those businesses to become more productive,” says Cumberford.

“The college sector works very closely with local businesses in their regions because that helps shape the curriculum that is being developed.

“We [colleges] are engaging with those businesses already so it’s a question of how can we also then support those businesses to make them more productive, improve their business processes and help them develop new products.”

It’s not a “one size fits all” approach and of the eight ICs, some are a better match for collaborating with the college sector than others.

The Data Lab, Construction Scotland Innovation Centre, Digital Health and Care Institute, and the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre in particular are finding that tapping into Scotland’s colleges can be of mutual advantage due to the nature of their work.

Big data is a hot topic and it’s one of Scotland’s emerging areas of expertise. As such, there are opportunities for colleges to work with the Data Lab to shape their courses in line with what the demands of the workforce of the future.

“For us, it’s how do we help companies and organisations – both commercial and public sector – to innovate using data science,” explains Gillian Docherty, chief executive at the Data Lab.

“Could they create new products and services? Could they enter new markets by using data in a new way?

“It’s a pretty hot area at the moment and organisations are using their data more and more to their competitive advantage.”

So where do Scotland’s colleges fit into the equation?

“As with all of the ICs, most of our interactions so far have been with the universities, but we are becoming more involved with colleges now, which is great,” says Docherty.

“There is already a data analyst Modern Apprenticeship framework signed off and we ran an event last year with industry and the colleges to create awareness that that exists.

“We have engaged with City of Glasgow College, Ayrshire College and Fife College so far and several others attended the kick-off session for the apprenticeships.

“Now it is really about how do we build on that momentum and get those off the ground.”

College innovation isn’t just about training students in the latest techniques and technologies.

Ayrshire College has been working on how to use data to predict student drop-outs. Their collaboration goes beyond determining what students can learn about working in data science, branching into how the colleges themselves can use data to their advantage.

“The colleges have a really vital role to play,” says Docherty. “They are very industry led so we often find that they have great relationships with industry partners.

“I have seen that personally with Ayrshire College, who are very well connected from an industry perspective.

“It is essential that we leverage that talent and capability to drive the new talent in terms of data literacy and awareness across multiple courses.”

Scotland’s construction industry, which generated a total output of

£14.5 billion in 2016, is another area where college innovation comes into play; and it is an industry which has recognised the value of vocational courses from the beginning.

“Our remit in terms of our funding through SFC has always been quite focused on the initial phase to engage with universities,” says Stephen Good, chief executive of the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC).

“As it happens, our business plan back in 2013 articulated a desire to do more, if we could, with the colleges.

“From a construction point of view, the college route is a rich pipeline of talent that comes into the industry.”

Good says now is the time to take hold of the opportunities presented by Scotland’s colleges.

The CSIC works with businesses to steer their growth and the insights gained from that collaboration enable Good and his team to pass on their knowledge around what skills the next generation of workers coming into industry will need to take their first steps on the construction career ladder.

“A big part of our training remit is around the future skills programme, looking at the future workforce and trying to make construction an industry of choice,” he explains.

“Young people have a multitude of different industries they can choose from so we are looking at what technologies we need to embrace to be an industry that is attractive to the future workforce.

“Our involvement is with schools, colleges and universities. The colleges are a great link into SMEs and particularly in a construction sense, working regionally, it’s great for us to have access to another layer of industry.

“Scotland has a real expertise in timber construction and our job is to help the companies that work in that area to develop their next generation of products.

“That might be off-site manufacturing, it might be looking at robotic support. It could be around managing materials on site and how a business could use recycled products more.

“The first thing is to educate the educators on the opportunities that exist. They can then spread that to their students.”

Cumberford concludes: “What is really important to us is to make sure that when we design courses we are designing them with the future of the construction industry, for example, in mind.

“We are using the very latest equipment, the very latest technology and we are using the businesses to help develop the qualifications.

“We need to be speaking to industries now about their workforce of the future and we need to shape the vocational system to make sure we are training people for that.”

Innovation Centres

The Scottish Funding Council has committed up to £120 million over six years from 2013-2019 to the Innovation Centre programme, which it launched in partnership with Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

The aim, at the outset, was to support transformational collaboration between universities and businesses through the introduction of eight Innovation Centres (ICs): the Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems; Construction Scotland Innovation Centre; Digital Health and Care Institute; Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre; Oil and Gas Innovation Centre; Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre; Stratified Medicine; and the Data Lab.

On the recommendation of the 2016 Reid Review Scotland’s colleges have joined the collaborative collective.

The local reach which colleges have into businesses in their communities is a previously untapped resource which, if embraced, has scope to contribute significantly to the ICs’ aim to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship across Scotland’s key economic sectors, create jobs and grow the economy.

This article appears in the SUMMER 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.