There are fresh fears for education after a former chairwoman of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce suggested efforts to develop effective national policies lacked coherence.

The remarks from Nora Senior, currently chairwoman of the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board, came as MSPs were warned about relentless financial pressures bearing down on the college sector.

Audrey Cumberford, Principal of Edinburgh College, told the Scottish Parliament’s Education, Children And Young People Committee that real-term funding cuts would be extremely challenging for institutions as they battle to maintain existing provision. Campuses have also been affected by lecturer strikes amid disputes over pay.

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With fears growing for the future quality of learning, Scottish Labour’s Michael Marra questioned whether high-level policy work was sufficiently robust. He suggested that, despite the creation of a dedicated team of civil servants, many observers were struggling to see evidence of clarity or structure. “I do worry slightly that we are talking a lot about coherence, we’re talking a lot about how different parts of the tertiary sector work together,” he told MSPs. “But, alongside that, we have an Audit Scotland report… which is utterly damning of the Government’s approach in terms of complete lack of leadership in that area, in terms of skills alignment.

“We’ve got the Cumberford-Little report; we’ve got the Scottish College Of The Future report; we’ve got the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) Review Of Coherent Provision And Sustainability. Now we’ve got a team in the Scottish Government, I think, which has swollen to over 20 civil servants, desperately seeking a vision or an idea about what to do. And we have a team at the SFC apparently also working up an alternative piece.” He added: “People have said to me there’s real frustration. They see these things going on in different places and they’re wondering – is it coherent?”

The Herald: Scottish Labour's Michael Marra is concerned about the coherence of education and skills policy.Scottish Labour's Michael Marra is concerned about the coherence of education and skills policy.

Responding to his comments, Ms Senior, also a former president at the UK Chambers of Commerce, said: “From a business person – and speaking personally – I have a lot of sympathy with what you’ve said there. I think there is a disconnect for a whole raft of different reasons, whether it’s change of personnel, whether it’s not seeing policy through.

“I think SFC is in, or has been in, a difficult position. It’s a funding body. It does not mandate and it cannot mandate the institutions. It can direct and give guidance through the outcome agreements. The strategic board highlighted the fact we didn’t think SFC had real insight and control over the measurements and return on investment that it was making, in the funding that it was giving to institutions.

“So, the SFC review has worked with government to address those. I think the outcome agreements will change, or are [changing], have changed, to direct institutions more towards guidance around which kind of courses they do.”

Ms Senior also warned the development of a “system-wide” response was being hindered. She added: “Institutions, at the end of the day, they are businesses in their own right, so they will make their decisions based on what is going to help their success as an institution. And I think that is a barrier to a whole, system-wide response. Do you have one body that brings all this together, so that you don’t have different silos across the system?”

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Ms Cumberford, who is also a commissioner on the Independent Commission on the College Of The Future, said: “It would be my view, absolutely, that the Scottish Funding Council and colleagues in government are working closely together and there is a commitment, that has been articulated, that government will be working over the coming months on setting out a very clear statement of intent and vision and purpose, actually, for not just the college sector but for that wider system.

“And then what I would hope, if that purpose and statement is clear, is that what flows from that is things like, where do we need to put resource? Where do we get the best return on investment? Etc.”

The Scottish Government insisted efforts were under way to set out a clear vision for post-school education. It also stressed ministers had published a shared outcomes framework to monitor progress across collaborative projects.

A spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government is clear that providing people with opportunities to pursue further and higher education and to develop knowledge and skills throughout their lives is a key driver of improved economic performance and wellbeing, which sits at the heart of our National Performance Framework and the National Strategy For Economic Transformation.”

She added: “There are many things working well in the system, but we are committed to making improvements and ensuring the best possible outcomes for our investment.

“We are working with partners to develop a clear purpose and set of principles for the post-school education, skills and research ecosystem. This work is drawing together and building on the strong foundations of the SFC review and other research and reports.”