By Audrey Cumberford and Paul Little

LAST summer the Scottish Government called upon ourselves as the principals of Scotland’s two largest colleges – Edinburgh College and City of Glasgow College – to review the economic impact of Scotland’s colleges.

We very much welcomed the significant challenge of co-authoring such an important publication, as it allowed us to shine a brighter light on the innovative and influential work taking place in all colleges across Scotland.

The Cumberford-Little Report, published today (February 13), concludes that while there is great practice on which to build, there is more our sector can do to support the Government’s drive to improve productivity. We also propose a series of recommendations for our politicians to consider which would allow us to create an operating environment in which colleges can truly thrive.

The recommendations set out ambitions for an agile, collaborative, inclusive and dynamic college communities. They include those aimed at allowing colleges to make an even greater economic contribution, particularly to Scotland’s huge SME and micro-business communities – so very timely, in an economic environment where the full challenges of Brexit are yet to become clear.

As you might expect, these recommendations are predicated on establishing the funding, performance, qualifications, and quality assurance systems to support this new purpose.

And, while our universities are clearly defined in the public eye, we felt it necessary to go back to basics to distinguish what a modern 21st century college is really for. We firmly believe that the support of business is their cornerstone, while delivering world-class lifetime learning. We should unashamedly pursue skills mastery underpinned by technical and professional education, while we insist on excellence rather than competence.

The scale and influence of Scotland’s 26 colleges illustrates their pivotal role in supporting economic growth. The report distinguishes how Scotland’s colleges thrive within a connected system, not a hierarchy. With the right policy environment too, their contribution to growth could be considerably enhanced.

We cannot overstate the importance of creating an environment that supports an immersive, symbiotic relationship between colleges and industry; delivering transformative technological education, including accelerated college degrees. But, colleges can do much more to support the Government’s innovation agenda, where innovation is a “pipeline” in which both colleges and universities play distinct but complementary roles.

Last year alone our sector welcomed some 265,000 students. Our role in supporting new entrants to – and the existing workforce in – all of Scotland’s priority business sectors is fundamentally important, not least for the annual boost to GDP of around £2.5bn. As the world of work and skills changes rapidly, and in ever challenging ways, it is crucial that our colleges have the flexibility to adapt and grow the needs of industry.

Scotland’s colleges represent a huge national asset with considerable Government investment. With the right cross-silo leadership, and by connecting and energising experts both within and outside our tertiary institutions, we will create more value for our economy, our society, our nation, and especially our students.

Co-authoring this report has left us as proud as ever of our sector and the incredible role it plays in developing and shaping people’s lives, and Scotland’s future. It reinforces our belief that a holistic, coherent, and tertiary response is more essential than ever if Scotland is to make a step change in delivering its national priorities.

Audrey Cumberford is Principal and CEO, Edinburgh College, and Paul Little is Principal and CEO, City of Glasgow College