Three years ago, Universities Scotland, the body that represents university principals, published a highly controversial report about the future of the economy.
Awkwardly entitled What Was/What Next? - the report set out to challenge existing assumptions about economic policy and highlight what might work better in future.
While the report was at pains to indicate in its opening pages that it did not represent a plea for more funding, the key message from the collected university economists and independent analysts was the importance of higher education qualifications.
Its conclusion was that the Scottish Government's best option for economic success was to invest in cutting-edge research and expand higher education to create a climate in which innovations could be the bedrock of new industries, such as nanotechnology or biomedicine, with a home-grown workforce equipped with the necessary skills.
Unfortunately, the report was rather more scathing about the alternatives for funding than it needed to be. In particular, it was openly hostile to the political goal shared by all parties of expanding vocational qualifications and apprenticeships on the back of a perceived 'skills gap' – the view that Scotland is short of plumbers, bricklayers and electricians.
It even suggested some students with vocational qualifications would have had a greater chance of employment if they had not undertaken the qualification.
The Scottish Government issued a strong rebuttal hours after the publication of the report calling it "inaccurate and ill-informed" and the subsequent spat turned what was intended as a thought-provoking intervention into a damaging altercation between Government and the university sector.
From that moment on What Was/What Next? – became, as one university source said, "the report we wished we’d never done" and it was banished to a forgotten corner of the Universities Scotland website, where it currently languishes.
This week, however, a report by the independent Higher Education Commission placed the subject firmly back on the agenda.
The commission said the postgraduate system in UK universities is failing to produce the number of highly skilled staff needed by a modern economy, with provision overly-focused on the needs of overseas students, who pay significant fees.
Without an expansion of UK postgraduate students, the report said, companies will either have to recruit more staff from overseas or even re-locate to countries with a higher skilled workforce.
Speaking to The Herald, Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, principal of Edinburgh University, said creating a larger pool of more skilled workers was equally vital to Scotland’s economic future. "If we were to invest more in Scottish postgraduates then that would help us in terms of the higher level skills required for the future economy as well as the leadership for new companies," he said.
It seems a good time for Universities Scotland to dust down What Was/What Next? – and restore its rightful status as a vital contribution to the debate around Scotland’s economic future, whether that lies within the Union or as an independent country.
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