By Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Glasgow
The ripple effects of the pandemic on our education system have been decidedly challenging. But as we look to better days on the horizon, we now have an opportunity to put education at the forefront of our recovery.
The publication of Phase 3 of the Scottish Funding Council’s (SFC) Review of Tertiary Education and Research this week comes at both a crucial juncture for the COVID-19 recovery, but also in our Just Transition to Net Zero.
We find ourselves at a crossroads. Do we return to the status quo? Or, do we use the post-pandemic environment to create a more dynamic, future-proofed and forward-thinking sector?
As I see it, the SFC Review affords a realistic and balanced assessment of resourcing and sustainability, whilst setting real ambition for change.
So what do we need to get right, and which wrong turns should we avoid?
First, we must align our education and skills provision with the needs of the country. In the Muscatelli Report of 2019 I spoke of the need for clarity of purpose. In the same vein, the SFC Review speaks of a more coherent education and skills provision, so that we can align our sector to meet the needs of our young people facing a challenging job market, and society’s needs for the lifetime skills to achieve a just transition.
The pandemic ignited a truly national mission to tackle COVID-19. Scientific communities have come together to understand the virus and work toward a vaccine. Our colleges and universities have come together to ensure Scotland’s learners continued to receive a world-class education, albeit remotely. This collegiality and collective action must now pivot towards the other great post-COVID challenges we face- from climate change to addressing health inequalities.
To do this we will need focused leadership, and as the Review emphasises, we need Government to develop a clear strategic and longer-term vision for the sector. This is not about reinventing the wheel, but rather mobilising our national assets.
This will also require investment and the Review suggest a multi-year funding framework. Indeed, transformative research cannot be done over a matter of months, it demands long-term funding.
The Review rightly recognises the vital importance of the research base and curiosity driven research – as the Muscatelli Report did: this is the foundation of our international reputation. As the Review outlines, ‘discovery research’ forms the foundations of emerging and future technologies, and supports Scotland in carving our reputation in fields such as Precision Medicine, life sciences and quantum technology. The Review also recognises that this international research reputation is built on non-publicly funded teaching, and that this is a key risk which must be managed through an international education strategy.
It is also good to see the call to Government to support a mission-oriented approach to innovation policy. This is not a new concept – the Scottish National Investment Bank (SNIB) is missions-focused, and in my Report I discussed the importance of concentrating innovation efforts where there is real critical mass, where we can make a significant contribution to society and, crucially, where we have a competitive advantage. Australian economist and proponent of mission-oriented strategy, Henry Ergas, put it simply in 1987, we must use “big science to solve big problems.”
Just as the pandemic has driven us to innovate, why not also use the greatest economic, environmental and societal problems facing us to drive our output?
Achieving this requires us all to step up: universities, colleges, agencies but also Government, to ensure the funding is there to meet these ambitions and a clear national innovation strategy, congruent with the Government’s priorities. I welcome the Review’s recommendation of next-generation ‘Research Pools’, creating cross-sector networks with a focus on challenge-oriented research collaboration, nurturing early career researchers and training. Similarly, the network of SFC co-investments in innovation centres will play a key role. Ultimately, we must mobilise the entire ecosystem of knowledge exchange and innovation, and as the Review suggests, galvanise current and future leaders across tertiary education to work together.
Finally, we must recognise that innovation does not happen in isolation, and I welcome the Review’s emphasis on internationalisation and our world-class reputation. Our international connections enrich our opportunities, both in terms of research and student experience, and our international staff and students enrich our campuses and play an intrinsic role in the success and sustainability of our sector.
As we forge our path to recovery, we must remember our universities and colleges only succeed when Scotland succeeds – and likewise, Scotland will only meet its full economic and social potential with a thriving tertiary sector. Now is the time for us to reimagine how we see ourselves. We have an opportunity now to not only build back better, but to build back smarter, and with a collective national mission.
A shorter version of this article was first published in The Times, 1 July 2021