There are 52 billion reasons why Scotland's colleges matter, but financial pressures risk drowning their economic impact. 

Advocates and researchers say the government must act to maintain the economic, environmental and social benefits that colleges provide.

A recent study from the University of Strathclyde Fraser of Allander Institute found that Scotland’s college graduates will be worth £52 billion over their working lives

The report found that every graduate creates a £72,000 boost to the economy thanks to their time in college.

To take this further, the Strathclyde report found that graduates support the equivalent of 203,000 full-time jobs over a 40-year working life. Colleges pitch in for the equivalent of 10,700 full-time jobs themselves and another 4,400 across the economy through their industry partnerships.

Ben Cooper, Knowledge Exchange Associate at the Fraser of Allander Institute and a study co-author, said colleges also play vital roles locally, "helping to bring education closer to all areas of the country, boost accessibility and widen access for students.”

“This includes broadening access for those from some of the most deprived areas of Scotland, with 14 of the 70 college campuses located in the top 20% most deprived areas of Scotland, and a further 20 in the most 40% most deprived areas”.


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Audit Scotland calls Scotland’s colleges “vital” for the country’s sustainable economic growth and critical to the Scottish Government’s three national “missions” for 2023 and 2024: tackling poverty, building a fair, green and growing economy, and supporting public services.

The ability to support and evolve the workforce means that colleges are also at the heart of Scotland’s environmental mission. 

Despite the Scottish Government’s step back from a commitment to cut emissions by 75% before 2030, an ambitious net zero target is looming in 2045. Industries are being pushed to phase out fossil fuels, and hitting net zero will require more than changing standards: the green economy will need green-minded workers, trained in the newest sustainable technologies and practices and able to upskill an existing, aging workforce.

Scottish Government ministers, third-party watchdogs, industry leaders, and lecturers all agree that a green skills revolution is less likely to occur without colleges training students.

Derek Smeall, principal and chief executive at Glasgow Kelvin College, beats this drum proudly. When it comes to what colleges offer Scotland, he said, “unique is the word”.

“As far as the green agenda moving forward, colleges have an important social role in society, but we also have a very specific job to do preparing the modern workforce.

“We see new technologies coming into industry, so we must take our apprentices and our students and teach them the new technology.”

The economic contributions are clear. 

But college students are more than cogs in a national economic machine. They’re individuals, and typically, they are individuals from their local communities. On top of this, they are also increasingly likely to be individuals the education system has let down.

As revealed by The Herald, the percentage of college credits awarded to disabled, minority ethnic, and care-experienced students has increased since 2014. More than a quarter of all credits were awarded to disabled learners, while similar statistics show that care-experienced students are accessing colleges at an increasing rate.

UHI Inverness principal and chief executive Chris O’Neil said college campuses should be a “genuine cross-section of a healthy society".

Colleges should open doors for people who are used to hitting a wall.

“We have folks that are dealing with a whole range of personal struggles, including mental health and physical disabilities.

“We’ve opened our doors to folks who have been disadvantaged because of personal circumstances. And we have witnessed some unbelievable journeys where people who entered with next to nothing exit into phenomenal careers.

“I want us to reflect what our communities are and what our society must be in the best possible way. We need to be caring, kind, progressive, encouraging and nurturing.”

The Herald: UHI Inverness principal and chief executive Christopher O'Neill believes colleges should open doors to all walks of life.UHI Inverness principal and chief executive Christopher O'Neill believes colleges should open doors to all walks of life. (Image: Peter Jolly)

Whether through access courses for students who were unable to obtain the necessary qualifications out of high school, English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) courses, or short courses that serve as a low-impact reintroduction to education, colleges can catch students who have fallen through the system’s cracks.

But that encouragement and nurturing extend beyond academics. Short courses can also be based on hobbies, skills, or topics vital to local heritage. Charitable initiatives across the country allow college campuses to be a place—sometimes the only place—for students to get a meal, clean clothing, or a warm place in the winter. 

Despite this, advocates and auditors have warned for years that the sector is at risk. The Scottish Government provides roughly 78% of the sector’s budget, and repeated cuts to that provision have created a funding gap of almost £500m over the past three years.

Today, discussions of why colleges matter have morphed into discussions of why they are worth saving.