Bill Jamieson: Scots universities are cream of crop

Queen Margaret University has an impressive 93.8 per cent graduate employability score. Picture: Getty
Queen Margaret University has an impressive 93.8 per cent graduate employability score. Picture: Getty
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An insightful exploration proves the nation’s tertiary education is up there with the best, writes Bill Jamieson

Barely a year goes by without some critical heart-searching report on the shortcomings of Scotland’s higher education sector. I daresay these criticisms are important and compel attention. But we must take care not to overlook the outstanding successes to which we can lay claim. They deserve greater public attention than they receive.

Our eyes are often cast down in Scotland. Days of uplift and positivity can be rare. But in the past week I had cause to visit two university campuses: Queen Margaret University Edinburgh in Musselburgh and the University of Edinburgh Business School. They proved among the most inspiring and uplifting days I can recall. Both in their separate ways are growing to become internationally acclaimed campuses and among the most entrepreneurial and innovative in the world.

To QMU first, where I was shown around the campus by its engaging principal, Petra Wend. Up till then I had very little knowledge, still less appreciation, of what QMU did. That has now changed utterly. Its work across the fields of health and rehabilitation, speech science, mobility analysis and linguistics left me muttering at every turn, “I never knew you did that”.

I met with Dr Kavi Jagadamma, who showed me the detailed 3D body movement tracking and analysis system used by athletes and patients with multiple sclerosis and mobility problems; Dr. Janet Beck, head of speech and hearing sciences, whose work helps people with speech difficulties; and Dr Jane McKenzie, who showed me the latest technology in food evaluation and consumer testing.

The visit was capped by a sneak preview of the stunning time-lapse film created by QMU lecturer Walid Salhab of Scotland’s major new cultural landmark, The Kelpies in Falkirk. This mesmerising, beautiful film, capturing the haunting quality of the largest equine sculptures in the world, was premiered in New York and in Scotland last week. It captures the four-month construction phase of the structures with artistry and skill, involving 1,000 hours of filming and more than 120,000 photos taken. The film brilliantly captures the mystical ability of The Kelpies to reflect the sky, sunset, clouds and moon. Commercial benefit? This atmospheric film will play a major part in introducing the sculpture worldwide and help to attract an additional 350,000 visitors and add around £1.5 million in annual tourism spending, putting Falkirk on the international tourist map.

Last Friday, QMU sponsored a Feast of the Commonwealth Science Festival dinner at Dynamic Earth. The Gastrofest featured a 300-seater dinner, stewarded by QMU students. The event enabled the university to showcase its “frontier foods” research and analysis with talks by Dr McKenzie and Dr Mary Warnock covering marine algae, rapeseed oil and sea buckthorn. I sampled all three, made very palatable by the attentions of top chefs Neil Forbes (Café St Honore) and Tom Lewis (Monachyle Mhor).

These and other products consolidate QMU’s reputation as a leading innovator in food and drink analysis, its researchers picking up two major awards for innovation and partnership with Advanced Microwave Technologies on the application of microwave technologies to the food and drink sector. QMU was the first university in Scotland to have a business gateway on campus. Business development executive Miriam Smith works to promote business applications of QMU’s research and knowledge exchange for companies as varied as Cuddybridge Apple Juice, rapeseed oil producer Black & Gold and Eteaket leaf tea.

In other areas, the university won a grant worth more than £300,000 from the Economic and Social Research Council to study speech development in children. Another project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, uses QMU technology to help children with Down’s Syndrome. Most recently, three new academies have been created to provide youngsters with an insight into important Scottish industries. Academies in food science and nutrition, health and social care and the creative industries will revolutionise how young people access education, training and employment. This is a campus whose parts add up to considerably more than its 5,000-strong student membership (25 per cent from beyond the UK) and with an impressive 93.8 per cent graduate employability score. Now there are plans for expansion.

Meanwhile, my visits to the University of Edinburgh Business School become ever more frequent, the latest to hear a tour de force presentation on Asia and mega-trends by Dominic Barton, global managing director of McKinsey, the world’s pre-eminent management consulting firm. Its partners whisper into the ears of government leaders, international regulators and chief executives of the world’s largest corporations. The event, organised by the Asia Scotland Institute, saw a lecture theatre packed to capacity. The Business School has more than 900 undergraduates and more than 500 post-graduate students. Just over half of undergrads and more than 90 per cent of master students are from outside the UK. All told, it has attracted 72 different nationalities for its current year courses.

The Edinburgh MBA is being re-focused to emphasise innovation and entrepreneurship as key elements of strategic leadership. Initiatives include courses on entrepreneurial leadership, new venture creation and innovation management and design thinking.

The Edinburgh Entrepreneurship Club hosted by the Business School is the largest entrepreneurship club in Scotland with over 1,300 members and is the main hub for entrepreneurial activity and start-up inspiration at the university. The student company formation service managed by Edinburgh Research and Innovation (ERI) handles around 30 start-up and spin-out ventures each year across the university.

A recent economic impact report found that ERI generated more than £164m Gross Value Added a year for the UK economy (globally more than £200m), and supported almost 3,000 jobs in the UK. It has established more than 2,300 industrial collaborations in the past five years and over this period has helped staff and students set up 162 new spin-out/start-up businesses. The university is one of the top-performing enterprise universities in the UK.

I am acutely aware that an article such as this is wide open to the sin of omission – that there are other outstanding campuses in other cities in Scotland doing as well, and which equally merit coverage and support. But I can only speak from personal experience of two in the past week. They are exemplars in their respective fields and deserve recognition.

I am sure there is so much more we can do and that there is room for improvement. But we should acknowledge the talent that we have in our universities more than we do, and never treat innovation, endeavour, creativity and enterprise as commonplace – especially when we are up with the best.