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by Andrew Learmonth
18 November 2021
Skill set: an interview with Jamie Hepburn

Skill set: an interview with Jamie Hepburn

One of Jamie Hepburn’s first brushes with the media was over 20 years ago when he was involved in a row over Glasgow University’s dismal record on University Challenge

Instead of putting the brightest and the best forward to face Jeremy Paxman, the team on the telly usually comprised of whoever had triumphed in the Glasgow University Union’s Beer Bar pub quiz.

In 1999, they were humped 340 to 125 by Durham, and in 2000 they were gubbed 230 to 140 by Aberystwyth. 

As Hepburn, who was senior vice-president of the Students’ Representative Council, told The Scotsman at the time, Glasgow was “one of the oldest universities in Britain” with a “proud history of providing the finest higher education in the country”.

 “To be perfectly honest we were sick of getting beaten all the time, particularly to teams such as Aberystwyth University,” he added.

Part of Hepburn’s job at the time was to change the system. He had to get the best, the brightest, the people who had the smarts, not just the people with the most confidence to come forward. He needed to give them an opportunity to shine. 

If you’re stretching (and, reader, we are) there are some similarities with his role in 2021. As the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training, it’s his job to help Scots reach their potential. 

His new brief - he was appointed to the post shortly after the last election - covers much more than just the terms in his hefty job title. It’s about skills, how you get them, and what you do with them once you’ve got them. 

It’s a sector that has undoubtedly been battered by Covid, but one that Hepburn says is in a good place to bounce back.

I ask him, now that we’re a year and a half into the pandemic, now that there’s a bit of distance between the great unknown of last year and where we are now, what he thinks the legacy of the pandemic will be. 

“I think, if you look at the short term, there’s no doubting there’s been disruption. But there’s also been things that have been learned - you want to be fair, these are things that some institutions have done for a long time. The Open University, of course, has always been predicated on distance learning - and what we have learned in common with, I think virtually every element of society, is that it’s possible to do things slightly differently.

“It is possible to deliver some elements of education remotely. That’s a good thing, that opens up opportunities and possibilities. But I would be lying if I said that would be what the usual student experience should be going forward. Ideally, we’d have more campus activity, and that’s happening.” 

“As we come through this we’ll be able to enable more activity on campus. I think back to my own time at university. One of the best things is meeting new and, to varying degrees, interesting people and making new friends and so on, which we shouldn’t underestimate as a core part of the experience,” he adds.

“If you were to ask me, what are some of the great challenges in terms of our education skill system in the future? It’s going to be making sure that we have a system that’s not only able to bring through a new pipeline of talent but also to support people to acquire new skills as they transition from one set to the other for various reasons, economic changes.” 
Scotland will, he says, need a “system that’s able to adapt and be responsive”. 

“Now, over the piece, I think they’ve shown that, but even more so in the last 18 months or so. I think that’s a real positive thing for our system to have learned and to be able to carry forward.”

So far, mostly positive, but surely there are negatives, surely there will be scars the sector has suffered, have those been identified? 

“I think we have a fairly resilient tertiary education system. I mean, there’s no denying that there’s been an interruption to teaching, although, albeit, it has been able to continue, it’s just had to be delivered in different ways,” Hepburn says.  

He points to the disruption to research, admitting that is “an area of concern” for the government. Although again, he points to the sector’s adaptability and flexibility, not least in the “pivoting towards responding to Covid-19 as a public health emergency”.

“I think the sector is resilient, will recover, and will recover fairly quickly. Obviously, we need to work collaboratively towards that end. 

“But I don’t envisage there being long-term scars on the sector. I do recognise though that there will be a cohort of students who will look back on their time at university and probably feel it wasn’t quite what they expected, wasn’t quite what it should have been.” 

We talk about distance and remote learning and opening up new opportunities. Does he think some of the sector’s newish adaptability and flexibility could help when it comes to tackling inequality? 

“Well, actually, I think it would be naive to not remind ourselves of the challenges of digital poverties as well. So in that sense, if you’re conscious of the fact that you’re thinking everything can be done via distance learning, in terms of using technology for it, it wouldn’t be as straightforward as saying well that broadens access in terms of closing the gap in terms of participation in tertiary or higher education.”

The Scottish Government’s target is for 20 per cent of university students to be from the most deprived communities by 2030. 

Hepburn admits he’s a little worried about the impact of the pandemic on meeting that goal.

“There were interim targets and actually last year we were ahead of the game,” he says.

“So we need to see where we are this year. My concern of course is that Covid-19 may have disrupted that but we don’t know yet. 

“The other thing I would point out is to actually look at higher education across the board. Some higher education was delivered in the college environment. When you actually look at the 20 per cent most deprived communities, over 20 per cent of participants in higher education across the board are actually from those communities. 

“So we’re doing quite well in that regard, but there’s still a lot more to be done.”
The minister says the government needs to be better at charting progression post-graduation. 

“Even where a person from a community of socio-economic deprivation goes to university if you look at the average outcome in terms of post-graduation earnings, that cohort, that population, are still below the average for other graduates.“

Hepburn was first elected to Holyrood in 2007, though he’d been a regular fixture in SNP circles for years before, serving as the convenor of the party’s youth and student wings. 

It was only when he went to university that he joined up, becoming a prominent part of a circle in Glasgow that included former minister Aileen Campbell. 

“I was born in 1979,” Hepburn says when I ask why he joined the SNP. “Conceived under Callaghan, born just under Thatcher.

“Not that they had anything to do with it,” he adds quickly. 

“Obviously, I wasn’t of the sharp end [of the Thatcher government’s policies] but you become conscious of things happening around you. My mother was a teacher, public sector worker. We weren’t a particularly political family in that sense. 

“My stepfather was a teacher as well, maybe slightly more political. You become aware of conversations, certainly become aware of who is perceived to be the villain of the piece, but you’re also aware of things happening around you, especially as you get older, so it was pretty clear to me that the direction in which our society was moving under Major, by the time I was becoming aware of these things. 

“I considered these things in the round, and as I still believe now, the best way of making sure we’re not subject to be impacted by policies that are being imposed on Scotland, by a government not supported, was through independence. So that was the conclusion I reached at 15, 16.”

His journey into government started in 2005 when he contested and lost the Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East constituency. Party members then invited him back to fight for the seat at the 2007 election.

Incredibly, he didn’t win despite winning 40 per cent of the vote. Labour’s Cathie Craigie held on to the seat winning over more than 48 per cent of voters. 

He was, however, on the Central Scotland list, becoming the second-youngest elected member of the Scottish Parliament for the 2007–11 session after university chum Aileen Campbell.

The turnover of candidates at the last election means he’s now one of the veterans 

“It’s funny because I actually remember speaking to a colleague who shall remain nameless - Michael Matheson - obviously, he was elected when he was young, I think he was 29 when he was elected. Many years later he said he still perceives himself as one of the young ones in parliament. He’s not really. 

“I’m kind of in that position myself. I suppose I’m still fairly young for being involved in the political process but put it this way I could tell you in 2007 I was the second youngest MSP, I haven’t a clue where I rank in that regard now.”

He is, by our reckoning, the 32nd youngest MSP.  

His toughest moment in parliament was losing the 2014 referendum. He was set to give an interview on the day after the result, arriving at Holyrood to watch the international media pack up their kit. The eyes of the world had been on Scotland and now, he says, they were turning elsewhere.

Hepburn is sure that at the next time of asking, his side can “secure majority support for independence”.

And he is sure that next time is coming sooner rather than later. “We have a majority of it for a referendum in this parliamentary session. I think that should be respected.”

I ask about the fall out of the Alex Salmond harassment row, and the schism that it has caused in the party. I ask how his local members feel about what happened, if they’re split and if that’ll impact the campaign. 

“That was an incredibly difficult period for the SNP in many ways, but frankly the SNP is bigger than any individual,” he says.

“It’s the main vehicle of the independence movement. It’s been that since its conception, and it will continue to be until we win independence and that’s what the members that I speak to, that’s what they’re focused on. That’s why they join SNP. That’s why they remain in the SNP. That’s why we campaign together in the SNP.”

A little postcript about losing and then winning: the University of Glasgow’s record at University Challenge remained woeful until about three or four years ago. 

After the humiliation against Aberystwyth, they didn’t appear on the show again until 2004 when they were defeated by Edinburgh. They’ve only made the televised shows three times since, but in 2019 they reached the giddy height of the quarter finals.

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