By Audrey Cumberford FRSE MBE, Principal & CEO Edinburgh College
Member of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future 

WHAT do we want and need from our colleges from 2030 onwards, and how do we get there? These were the important questions we started with at the Independent Commission on the College of the Future. 

When we began work last spring, we knew we needed to respond to the impacts of the climate emergency, Brexit, changes in the world of work, an aging population and technological innovation. 

But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the prospect of a no-deal Brexit seems ever more likely, the work of colleges is now more critical than ever. 

Throughout our work, we have drawn a huge amount from the different policy approaches and practices from across the four nations, and internationally. 

Our vision, for the role the college of the future can and must play for people, productivity and place reflects what a vast array of people from across the UK have told us, based on the best of what colleges do already, and the potential for this to be expanded to become so much more. 

For people, colleges have to become a genuine touchpoint for everyone throughout their lives. This is so important in light of changes in the world of work and technological change and ensuring that people made redundant from the ongoing crisis are able to retrain and upskill.

And a right to lifetime learning also reflects a fundamental ambition of a more socially inclusive, just society that we want to live in. 

For productivity, colleges have the potential to significantly expand their offer as a strategic support to employers across innovation and skills. This is critical as we support employers to recover from the impacts of the pandemic, and crucial too as we urgently move to a green economy in response to the climate emergency. 

And for place, colleges must be empowered to build on their natural position as critical anchors at the hearts of our communities.

This means working closely in partnership with a whole range of other partners - to eliminate digital poverty, to improve public health and to promote community inclusion and cohesion. We’re clear that Scotland starts from a position of real strength – and we have drawn a great deal from the Scottish system and institutional practices through our UK-wide work. 

But we’re also clear that key challenges and changes facing Scotland mean that we need to act with real urgency to further empower the role colleges can play, within a more coherent and connected wider system. 

Now is not the time for complacency or inaction – we need radical action, building on strengths we already have, to ensure and trust that colleges can be at the heart of Scotland’s economic recovery, the transition to a green economy and amplifying an outward looking and positive relationship with the rest of the UK and the wider world. 

We set out ten recommendations in our new report for the Scottish College of the Future, but I want to flag three particular priorities. Firstly, as ever, funding is a critical element – colleges cannot meet their full potential without sustainable funding levels, and we are clear that we must redress funding inequities across the Scottish education and skills system to ensure that all parts of the system can play their part in. 

But it’s not just the level of funding – it’s redressing a highly complicated system, with too many small, siloed pots of funding which act to impede the ability of colleges to focus on long-term systems outcomes and the vital system leadership required for the future.

At Edinburgh College, we have over 70 different funding streams – in conversations across the UK, I struggle to find anywhere that is quite so complicated. 

This needs to change – with a simpler, streamlined approach, based on strategic outcome agreements and removing unhelpful bureaucratic restrictions which impede our ability to be agile and responsive. 

Secondly, we need financial support to also reflect the aims of a cohesive, connected tertiary system – and this means ensuring that people, whatever their age, background or circumstance can access grants and loans to support lifetime learning.

This means us returning to the excellent ‘Independent Review of Financial Support for Students’ led by Jayne-Anne Gadiha in 2017, and ensuring that this is fully implemented – and it means ensuring that the welfare system never acts as a barrier to lifetime learning too. 

And thirdly, colleges need to be clear and confident as to their role within a coherent, connected tertiary system. This means strategic alignment at the national level, including between the Scottish Funding Council and Skills Development Scotland.

It means strong alignment between regional outcome agreements, between colleges and all other providers. And it means unlocking the potential of colleges and the wider tertiary system in supporting innovation and support for Scotland’s businesses.

We have a lot to be proud of in our college system – but to keep pace with a changing world to ensure that colleges are truly at the heart of our economic and social recovery from the pandemic, we need decisive action, now more than ever. As a college sector, we’re ready to do it.