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by Martin Boyle, Interim Chief Executive of the Scottish Funding Council
19 June 2024
Associate Feature: Nurturing a national asset

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Associate Feature: Nurturing a national asset

Scotland’s colleges and universities are a major national asset, and they support the delivery of most areas of government policy. 

They help us understand the world around us; make discoveries that improve lives; give us opportunities we might not otherwise have had; develop capacities for technical, vocational and critical thinking; act as a magnet for global talent and investment; and shape local communities as well as the leaders and industries of the future. 

They are also shaped by their funding and policy context. Beyond the UK-wide drivers that affect economic prosperity, immigration policy, international relations, and funding settlements, the Scottish tertiary education and research sectors have maintained a distinctive character; for example, Scottish four-year degrees continue to be considered attractive not only for home students but for international applicants too; tuition is free at the point of use for Scottish students; and we have developed strong articulation study routes between colleges and universities. 

Policies on widening access to higher education and contextual admissions have provided life-changing opportunities for thousands, with colleges often providing a springboard into university or into local employment. And the process of establishing regional colleges has provided communities with anchor institutions that engage with schools and businesses and are more responsive to local needs. 

The concept of tertiary education and the importance of the link between teaching and research has been central to policy making here. The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) was established to integrate further and higher education funding - well ahead of other parts of the UK - and to bring funding for both teaching and research into one place. 

This means we can take a more holistic approach to education and skills - we now work in partnership with Skills Development Scotland to fund graduate apprenticeship programmes and support foundation and modern apprenticeships in colleges. We can also protect and develop our compliance with European quality standards; as Scotland’s tertiary education funders, we are choosing to maintain recognised quality benchmarks and independent external reviews of universities and colleges. This matters for our home students, but also for other countries whose need for quality assurance goes beyond our impressive league table results. 

SFC has nurtured Scotland’s strong research base and reputation for collaboration. We incentivised that collaboration through an investment of £155m in 11 research pools that worked across Scottish universities in particular disciplines to draw in funding, research staff and doctoral students. This has evolved into our exciting new Alliances for Research Challenges, creating next-generation inter-disciplinary research networks that focus on key national and international challenges, like a sustainable food system, brain health, and the transition to a climate-aligned society. Collaboration is also at the heart of Scotland’s Innovation Centres, connecting academic expertise in universities and colleges with industry and with public and third sector organisations to make research useful and provide skills and training for the future. 

Scotland’s tertiary education, skills and research system is very good but - like every other nation across the world - legislators, policymakers, funders and institutions will continue to grapple with the complexities of delivering an education system that is responsive to the pace of social and economic change.

Ongoing questions to consider are what funding model works best, how to make the most of the public funds we invest for students and employers and what contribution should they make, and how to support students to succeed in their studies and to lead fulfilling lives. 

Building on solid foundations, the education reform programme will provide government with the opportunity to deliver the reforms we need to future-proof our tertiary education and research system for the next decade.

This article is sponsored by the Scottish Funding Council

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