Our colleges, the foundation of our skilled workforce, need bold thinking - Sue Webber

With 239,000 students in Scottish colleges last year, there is no doubting the vital role further education plays in supplying Scotland with the steady flow of skilled people essential for a thriving economy.

It’s not just school-leavers, but thousands of older people seeking to re-enter the workplace or re-train, something many of us will face in a digital era in which there are no guarantees of a career for life, never mind a job.

A full post-pandemic recovery will be impossible without the training offered by Scotland’s 26 colleges, yet at a time when we need more qualified workers than ever, student numbers are decreasing, down 9.8 per cent since 2020. As Colleges Scotland chair Dr Waiyin Hatton wrote earlier this year, “The chronic shortage of housing in Scotland will never be resolved if our colleges aren’t training bricklayers, joiners and electricians.”

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But our colleges are in a dire situation. Following the Scottish Government’s Spending Review, the sector faces cuts £51.9m, and at this month’s meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People committee, which I’ve just been appointed to convene, Edinburgh College Principal Audrey Cumberford told MSPs she now needs to find savings of around £5.5m. That’s on top of a reduction of around £28m since 2013.

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However, Nora Senior the ex-president of the UK Chambers of Commerce who serves with Ms Cumberford on Scotland’s Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board, told the committee that if the funding system was reformed to give colleges more flexibility they could fine-tune their course offerings to meet industry needs and open up new funding sources.

“There needs to be flexibility in how funding is delivered to individual colleges—and more flexibility around the types of courses that are delivered—so that business can participate more closely with colleges and universities in delivering against skills demand and needs,” she said.

No-one underestimates the scale of the economic challenges we face as soaring food and energy costs but it’s not enough to simply expect governments to write ever bigger cheques. In the Scottish college sector at least, the clear message from the experts is that empowering institutions to work more closely with private enterprise could produce better results and limit the pressure on the public purse than if they were solely reliant on tax-payers’ money.

We need to be smarter about the way colleges in Scotland are funded, says Sue Webber. PIC: Contributed.We need to be smarter about the way colleges in Scotland are funded, says Sue Webber. PIC: Contributed.
We need to be smarter about the way colleges in Scotland are funded, says Sue Webber. PIC: Contributed.

“The answer is not always additional funding,” said Ms Cumberford, refreshingly. “It potentially involves considering how we can best flex the resource currently in the system and target it for the outcomes we want to see.”

With 132,000 people in Scotland claiming job seekers allowance as of April, some 5.5 per cent higher than the February 2020 pre-pandemic level, colleges can play a key role in finding them new paths to employment.

Flexibility and industry collaboration is crucial, because that’s the best way to keep pace with employer demand, especially in digitally-driven workplaces where the rate of change is break-neck.

The need for fleet-footed adaptability is a message which should resonate wider than the college sector, but at a time when skills and money are in short supply ─ the hospitality sector needs 48,000 staff to return to pre-pandemic levels, according to Dr Hatton ─ the time to empower our colleges is now.

-Sue Webber is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Lothians.

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