Blended and online lectures will remain a central feature of life at Scotland’s universities and colleges, with national investment set to be adjusted so staff can provide them.

The plan is outlined in a major Scottish Funding Council (SFC) review that says high-quality digital approaches are no longer “nice-to-have” but will be “part of the core strategy of every educational institution, regardless of the continued importance of residential and campus life”.

It comes as many observers predict the Covid-19 pandemic will result in a permanent role for remote teaching methods after access to campuses was significantly restricted.

Published today, the document’s summary says: “We will work with sector agencies to realign SFC’s investments to support the digital skills of educators so that they are equipped to develop and deliver high quality online and blended learning that meets the needs of students.”

It adds that efforts will be made to “explore the creation of a national digital consultancy service for senior leaders in tertiary education, reflecting institutions’ own plans for development and SFC’s investment, to inform future decisions and investment priorities so that we can accelerate change and implement good practice together”.

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The measure is one of a number set out in the report, which is called Coherence and Sustainability: A Review of Tertiary Education and Research.

They stem from a Scottish Government-commissioned analysis of challenges facing the “financially pressured” sector as it battles to recover from the pandemic.

Among the proposals is a recommendation calling for the development of short courses that can be combined to form larger qualifications over time. It is hoped the shift towards “bite-sized” learning will help individuals acquire new skills throughout their lives.

The document from the SFC – which invests around £1.9 billion every year in Scottish universities and colleges - also stresses the importance of a “clear strategic, longer term vision”. It says this should incorporate multi-year funding assumptions and commitments, as well as a new National Impact Framework to support planning.

Decarbonising the national economy is another key theme, with the report recommending that research and knowledge exchange be geared towards tackling environmental issues. In addition, it calls for efforts to develop a “refreshed set” of expectations on fair access to courses.

HeraldScotland: Covid-19 brought major disruption to college and university campuses.Covid-19 brought major disruption to college and university campuses.

“This Review is not intended to be an endpoint,” the summary states. “There is no one simple answer to the commission, only hard choices in uncertain times.”

It adds: “The current system has many strengths that sit alongside our recommendations for the future. Colleges and universities are major national assets, with significant social, economic and cultural impact.

“Their excellent research catalyses ideas, innovation and economic growth; and they create a pipeline of skills across technical, vocational and critical thinking requirements at every level and from all walks of life.

“The return on investment for colleges and universities ranges between £6.50 and £11 for every £1 invested. They employ 62,000 people (with an additional 73,000 jobs supported by universities alone) and they help shape local communities and address social inequality and disadvantage.

“Their global reach is unparalleled, bringing reputation, investment, collaboration, talent and cultural diversity to Scotland.

“We are clear about what could be better but we understand the importance of what we already have.”

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Commenting on the document, SFC Chair Mike Cantlay, said: “This review has brought together the expertise and experience of countless participants. I am incredibly grateful to all of them for being so generous with their time and expertise amongst the many other demands of the past year.

“It is clear that we come from a position of strength with some of the best colleges and universities in the world

“However, we are living in uncertain and changing times and we need to create the conditions for a tertiary education, skills and research system that can be more responsive not only to learners but to the economic, cultural and social needs of Scotland.

“We look forward to working with partners to deliver on the many recommendations set out in our report that will enable us to respond effectively and at pace, and set ambitious pathways for the future.”

Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland, said: “We welcome the review’s recognition of Scottish universities as an international asset for Scotland, and the crucial contribution that higher education makes to the wellbeing of our nation and its communities. We support the review’s affirmation of the central role that higher education’s teaching and research will make to building an inclusive recovery, and the need to support that.  

HeraldScotland: The review suggests the Covid-19 pandemic has brought lasting change to further and higher education institutions such as Glasgow University (pictured).The review suggests the Covid-19 pandemic has brought lasting change to further and higher education institutions such as Glasgow University (pictured).

“The Funding Council’s review recognises the need for stability in funding models while universities continue to deal with the emergency years caused by Covid-19 and other intense pressures brought about by Brexit, and the need for multi-year budgets for universities. That’s important, since each year we enter into multi-year commitments to tens of thousands of students.   

“We also welcome the SFC’s desire to take the best of what universities and colleges have done differently due to the pandemic and put that on a firmer footing, for instance so that universities can make the strongest possible contribution to upskilling and reskilling people at various stages of their careers.”

He added: “There’s a lot in the review, and a major emphasis on collaboration.  So we hope Scottish Government and SFC will take a deeply collaborative approach to considering the Review’s recommendations and working with universities to chart the way forward.”

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Shona Struthers, Chief Executive of Colleges Scotland, said: “The recommendation on moving colleges to a multi-year funding model is essential - the one-year funding model we have today should be consigned to the past, colleges need financial stability going forwards.

"Colleges want to plan and invest, work with local and regional partners, and most importantly provide a really great experience for our students which on one-year funding is becoming ever more challenging. Financial stability is critical to the success of colleges now and in the future.

“The review is right to consider the impact of the pandemic on the college sector and, again if its recommendations are enacted, there is a great opportunity for the delivery of new ways of learning such as micro-credentials and making the most of the digital learning and working environment that we’ve all had to pivot to."