Helping cook up new ways of learning

Developing partnerships with businesses is proving fruitful for both college students and Scotland’s companies, says Ray McCowan

The East Lothian Hospitality and Tourism Academy. Picture: Contributed
The East Lothian Hospitality and Tourism Academy. Picture: Contributed

Edinburgh College won three awards at the College Development Network Annual Awards in Glasgow recently, showcasing the best of further education in Scotland. Our community garden won the health and wellbeing award, our electric vehicle research project was highly commended in the sustainability category, and a student-led induction initiative involving industry mentors was commended in the learning and teaching category.

These awards reflect the diversity of expertise and innovation across our campuses, and the award for the electric vehicle project in particular is a sign that the college’s innovative approach to working with industry is paying dividends.

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We have always worked closely with industry partners to identify the skills and knowledge they want college graduates to have when they enter the workforce. Listening to employers to ensure we are producing effective employees (and employers) of the future is a basic tenet of further education, and by meeting the needs of Scottish business, we are aiding economic growth.

However, what is really interesting is how we are now using our strong industry connections creatively to introduce new opportunities. With funding pressure on the further education sector, colleges need to find new ways of delivering education and business development.


Additionally, the changed further education landscape, in which larger colleges are forming through mergers, is changing the nature of existing partnerships. It is an ideal time to examine our relationships with business partners, and exploring how these can be developed into innovative new areas is already proving fruitful.

Our electric vehicle project is a partnership with Mitsubishi Phoenix, SEStran (the regional transport partnership for south-east Scotland) and Edinburgh Napier University. The fleet of vehicles isn’t only an environmentally-friendly travel option for staff, it is also producing data about the viability of green travel. Mitsubishi’s support for the college to expand the project is allowing us to explore more opportunities to work with the firm in curriculum areas. This is exactly the kind of expansive relationship we aim to cultivate, one that gives students the chance to learn from wider college initiatives.

Achieving environmental sustainability is also essential for colleges, and exploring opportunities such as the electric vehicle project from multiple angles – educational, environmental and commercial – should help us reach our targets.

Our latest awards success came after another project that works innovatively with industry was highly commended at the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) Star Awards. The pioneering East Lothian Hospitality and Tourism Academy launched last year as a partnership between Edinburgh College, Queen Margaret University and East Lothian Council. It bridges the gaps between school, further and higher education, and employment, allowing year 5 and 6 pupils to study progressively for further and higher education qualifications while gaining work experience.


Vital to the success of the academy’s unique approach is the backing of industry leaders, including Marriott and Novotel, Macdonald Hotels and Resorts, Jury’s Inn, Mercure, Best Western Edinburgh Capital Hotel and the prestigious Prestonfield House.

This successful model has been used to launch academies for the creative industries, health and social care, food science and nutrition, and most recently engineering – all supported by industry partners.

These academies are giving young people the chance to sample career areas that they might never have known existed but that they find offer enjoyable and rewarding opportunities. They are helping to fill national skills gaps, in key areas for the Scottish economy.

Sir Ian Wood’s recent report for the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce recommended that vocational education should have equal importance to academic education in ensuring the economic and social success of the nation. We hope the government pays heed to the report and to projects such as the academies that support vocational education in creative new ways.

Also highly commended at the SQA Star Awards was our mentorship programme for graphic design students. Professionals from local graphic design agencies have become mentors for students. Previously, many agencies’ first contact with students was at end-of-year exhibitions or when graduates were job-hunting. With industry links now embedded into the curriculum, students are better placed to find employment and the industry is tuned in to developing new talent at an earlier stage. This model is easily adaptable to other industries and could create an easier transition from education to employment.

All these projects are representative of many that the college is undertaking with businesses. The creative and innovative ideas I see across our college is cause for celebration, and our string of awards – alongside some strong work by other colleges – indicate that the further education sector’s relationship with business is thriving in exciting and mutually beneficial new ways.

• Ray McCowan is Vice-Principal Education Leadership at Edinburgh College.