Lloyd Anderson: Universities deserve reputation

The overall learning satisfaction of international students in Scotland is unmatched worldwide. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
The overall learning satisfaction of international students in Scotland is unmatched worldwide. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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We have a world leading higher education sector, writes Lloyd Anderson, but we can make it even better

Four of Scotland’s universities were recently ranked in the world’s top 100 in a leading survey, including the University of Edinburgh which broke into the top 20 for the first time. The same survey praised Scotland’s world-class research and graduates, who are rated as some of the most employable in Europe.

This is a fillip for Edinburgh and Scotland, and the education professionals, academics and students who make up the sector – excellence in research, education and innovation are mainstays of a successful higher education system, one of the most important assets for a modern nation in the face of increasing competition and globalisation.

With the exception of Switzerland, Scotland has more leading universities per capita than any other nation, and when you consider that there are more than 100 million students in higher education worldwide it’s a remarkable achievement that our universities remain at the forefront of higher educational learning at the beginning of the 21st century.

While numerous surveys have marked out individual Scottish universities for excellence, the report that we are publishing today – A strategic analysis of the Scottish higher education sector’s distinctive assets, by education specialists Neil Kemp and William Lawton – attempts to look at the higher education sector in Scotland in a slightly different way; namely, to compile and examine the distinctive assets of the sector.

The report has unearthed some remarkable findings, including that collectively the Scottish system rates highly against not only the rest of the UK but the rest of the world, and reveals that the overall learning satisfaction of international students in Scotland is unmatched worldwide – Scotland is the top global destination for international students. We think this is very important for Scotland, as there is a high correlation between overall levels of learning experience satisfaction and the likelihood that a student will recommend their study destination to others.

On the education front, what is it that makes Scotland so attractive to the outside world? The report paints a picture of a uniquely joined-up university sector, one that is collaborative and inclusive to a greater extent than many other nations, and it is internationally active with strong links to business and industry at home and abroad.

The report says that the main stakeholders in Scotland’s higher education system, including the Scottish Government, understand the centrality of education to Scottish national life and its future national success in a more profound way that can be said to be lacking in other developed nations; and the report suggests this may have something to do with the fact that higher education has been around for centuries. It goes on to say that Scotland holds dear to the ethos of higher education being a public good, and that this presents a growing contrast to the marketisation of the sector elsewhere in the UK. It is important that the whole sector continues its great work, understanding that Scotland must be a confident outward-looking nation, and that building bridges between Scotland and the rest of the world creates trade and business links that help boost Scotland’s economic prosperity.

It is encouraging that the report finds that we are not resting on our laurels or becoming complacent. Instead, our higher education has grown in diversity and responded to the evolving needs of society, business, industry and government while delivering high-quality research. Universities such as the West of Scotland and Highlands and Islands innovate to meet diverse community and societal needs across Scotland. Strathclyde and Robert Gordon have dynamic industry and business links, and Dundee is renowned internationally for excellence in medical education. As christened last year by The Scotsman, Edinburgh’s “Silicon Bridges” technology cluster has the University of Edinburgh’s computer sciences and informatics departments at its core, a key component in a burgeoning tech start-up community that is seen by many commentators as the most vibrant in the UK outside London.

The authors of the report do not shy away from delivering a well-balanced critique of Scotland’s higher education system and the areas where we need to do better. These include the need to attract even more international students at undergraduate level, how best to improve our transnational education offering [although Heriot-Watt provides a noteworthy exception], and the need to get more people from lower socio-economic groups into higher education.

The report also reveals that many international education professionals and students possess a lack of knowledge of how our system is different. So one of our challenges is going to be how best to promote better understanding. Another area we need to look more closely at is the four-year degree format, as some respondents indicated that this may be a disadvantage for Scotland’s offering in today’s world market for higher education.

So it would seem that we face something of a paradox when we consider our higher educational offering: on one hand we have an undisputed world-leading sector, on the other we have not managed to communicate this effectively enough to a worldwide audience. While doing so may be our biggest challenge of all, the successes of our system to date suggest that together we are more than up to the task.

• Lloyd Anderson is director of the British Council Scotland