AC4 (1)
07 February 2022

Going further and higher: reflections from Principal Audrey Cumberford

Our Principal and CEO and Commissioner on the UK Independent Commission, Audrey Cumberford, reflects on the opportunities for the tertiary sector in the coming years, setting out the importance of collectively challenging each other to create a thriving post-16 education and skills system for learners across the UK

"From the urgent transition to a net zero economy, to supporting people through changes in the world of work, and to addressing social and regional inequalities across Scotland – our colleges and universities have to be at the heart of Scottish Government’s ambitions to build a fairer, green Scotland.

But the fact is, too often colleges and universities do not work as part of a joined-up system – instead acting as two very different sets of institutions. They can be disconnected, riven by at times by distrust, at times disinterest. And the consequence of this is that we are not collectively meeting our full potential to deliver for all people, employers and communities across Scotland.

This challenge of university-college relationships definitely isn’t solely a Scottish issue. A report out today, jointly from the Independent Commission on the College of the Future and the Civic University Network, notes that these issues exist across all four nations of the UK, and internationally too – reflecting cultural and historical bias, and policy choices governments have made over a matter of many decades, which has resulted in inequitable funding and student finance, and systems which are far too siloed and disconnected.

We’ve in fact made considerable strides forward to redress these issues in Scotland over the past two decades, and in many ways Scotland fares much better when it comes to collaboration across the tertiary education system than other UK-nations. Todays’ report highlights articulation agreements as a particular strength of our system, which where they work well can enable people to progress onto degree programmes directly from college without having to re-take years. And it raises a range of exemplary local practices that exist across Scotland, too - including flexible degree pathways developed between the Open University (OU) and Ayrshire College, Fife College and City of Glasgow College, The BP Mauritania and Senegal National Apprentice Technician Training Programme delivered in partnership between Forth Valley College, Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) and BP, and a Data Driven Innovation (DDI) skills programme delivered by Edinburgh College- where I am Principal - and the universities across the Edinburgh region.

We should be proud of all of this – and these represent elements where other UK nations can certainly learn from our approach. And yet, we’ve still got a long way to go, if we are to have an education and skills system that is able to meet the challenges of tomorrow – providing a genuinely lifetime service to people, a strategic resource for employers, and to be properly embedded as anchors within our communities.

This requires further change from Scottish Government – and I hope the recommendations will be considered, alongside other recent reports, including the Cumberford-Little report I co-wrote for Scottish Government in January 2019. This has include a new statement of ambition for the Scottish tertiary education system, as well as looking at a more equitable approach to funding and student finance across the system.

But we must also be clear that this isn’t a problem for Scottish Government to fix alone – there is a huge amount more than university and college leaders can and must do. We need to see local collaboration not as an optional extra for when we have a spare moment, and not something for other people to bother about, but as being a fundamental concern for us all.

This means building on the success of articulation agreements where they work well, and developing them where they do not yet exist. It means working together in new ways to support employers of all sizes with innovation and business change, and taking a more active, joined-up approach to regional economic development and our urgent transition to a green economy. It means developing a much more joined up local approach to careers information, advice and guidance, and it means playing our full role in tackling digital poverty and digital exclusion. It means doing much more to offer opportunities for people across our communities to access all that we have to offer, whether or not they choose to study with us – opening up our institutions as recognised community assets, which support public health and social integration.

It means doing all of this and more, together as genuine partners with a common goal. And it means embedding this joined-up approach into our very fabrics, so that good university-college partnerships aren’t reliant on whoever happens to be the Principal at the time – and it means us being held accountable to this way of working.

We have real strengths to build on, locally and nationally, and so I’m hopeful that we develop the agile, collaborative and inclusive tertiary system that we will need to meet Scottish Government’s ambitions for a fairer, green Scotland. I hope today’s report can act as a call to arms for concerted and consistent action to make this a reality."

Audrey Cumberford MBE FRSA