If Scotland’s rural economy was more like Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and New Zealand, it could be £4.5 billion a year better off. Setting up the country’s first dedicated rural university would help make that vision of the future a reality, writes Professor Wayne Powell.
How does Scotland stand apart from Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and New Zealand?
A trawl through Google could throw up an entire pub quiz worth of answers, not least the lamentable fact that the rest of them have played a game at the football World Cup more recently than we have.
But I want to focus more closely on my own specialty area of rural affairs, where one distinction becomes apparent immediately: Scotland is the only one of these five nations not to house a dedicated rural university.
When you consider that all five of these countries have a strong, thriving rural sector which is a significant, powerful contributor to their overall economies, it does raise the question as to why we have yet to deliver this kind of institution.
It is an imbalance that Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is determined to correct, which is why last year we announced the first phase of our plan to transform into an enterprise university for the rural sector by 2022.
I have been encouraged by support across the education sector, rural industries and the economy more widely for these plans and we will be outlining further milestones on our way to university status as we progress.
However, whilst the educational case for what we are doing is already well understood, we wanted more clarity on what the wider benefits of a rural university would be for innovation and our economy.
To this end, we commissioned Biggar Economics, a leading independent economic consultancy, to benchmark Scotland’s performance against comparator nations that already have a rural university, namely Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and New Zealand. The report found that these nations enjoy significant advantages over Scotland, in terms of better productivity in the agricultural and primary sectors, as well as much greater investment in research and development.
Without delving into all the details here, what struck us at SRUC, when we read the report, was not the gap that has opened up between Scotland and these other similar nations, but the prize on offer if we can catch up, or even exceed, them.
In purely financial terms, it could mean an additional £4.5bn gross valued added (GVA) per annum for Scotland’s economy. I understand that this is a big figure to bandy about and people will want to know how attainable it really is. I believe it is very attainable and whether we give ourselves a chance of reaching it will ultimately depend on the policy choices we make.
As a country develops, there are two approaches it can adopt in relation to the rural economy – either we can allow it to shrink in relative importance and rely on imports for food and drink, whilst generating wealth from other areas of the economy, or we can identify the rural economy as a driver of growth.
This requires productivity increases in order to deliver a contribution to growth and to compete for resources with other sectors of the economy.
I believe that the second of these policy approaches is what we need to push for in Scotland and the projections in the report were made with this in mind.
This would be the best and – if we are being frank – very likely the only way to close the gap on the successful advanced economies that were measured in this report. An enterprise university for Scotland’s rural economy can be the catalyst for this growth.
All this is before we begin to look at how we could lead the world in reducing agricultural emissions, or help meet the targets outlined by the United Nations’ own sustainable development goals, which I believe are a crucial tool in delivering a better future for the whole planet.
So, what would a rural university do differently and why do we need one?
Looking at the comparator countries, the report demonstrates how their rural universities offer a global outlook but are tied to the local rural landscape, transferring knowledge into practice that benefits the domestic economy.
They act as a core driver of the rural economy, lead innovation, provide world-class education, research and training, and help economic skills strategies. It is precisely this type of forward-thinking, joined-up and dynamic approach that I want to replicate in Scotland.
It will be hard work but the prize will be worth it. We are already speaking to our colleagues across the education and rural sectors to work out the best way of delivering what Scotland really does need.
Our own plans to become an outward-facing rural enterprise university, committed to educational excellence, strongly connected to industry and creating economic growth, will only truly succeed if we all pull in the same direction.
In the months ahead, we will be working hard to bring even more people on board for this vision, identifying and engaging with those who may have qualms or even doubts about what we are trying to achieve.
Co-operation across all sectors and a willingness to directly address any challenges ahead are both key – if we get that bit right then the new rural university’s potential is vast indeed.
Professor Wayne Powell is principal and chief executive of SRUC. Turn to page 27 for an article that highlights the importance to Scotland’s economy of its towns, such as ‘Book Town’, ‘Craft Town’ and ‘Art Town’.