By Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal of the University of Glasgow
Scotland’s colleges and universities are among our most important national resources – supporting jobs, inspiring economic growth, providing opportunities to young people, acting as anchor institutions in our communities and making the research breakthroughs which will solve some of the great social issues of our time.
This isn’t just recognised nationally, but internationally – as a small country, we have always punched above our weight in representation among the world’s elite universities – and in delivering genuinely world-leading research.
The value of our universities has never been clearer than during the pandemic – at the University of Glasgow, we host Scotland’s only Lighthouse Lab testing thousands of people every day, while colleagues are participating in efforts to find a vaccine, analysing the genetic code of the virus and examining its wider effects on mental health and chronic health conditions.
But while COVID-19 has demonstrated the massive role we have to play in Scottish society, it has also brought into sharp focus some challenges our sector faces which were already apparent beneath the surface.
At a time of economic upheaval when resources will be scarce, we need to ensure we act to ensure the continued success and sustainability of the sector – and the publication of the first report from SFC is a very welcome first step, and should stimulate a very necessary debate about what exactly we want our colleges and universities to achieve for Scotland, and how they can be empowered to do so.
With over 100 submissions received from all parts of Scottish public life, the Scottish Funding Council Review clearly sets out a range of opinions from across the spectrum. And while I fully support and look forward to participating in the debate on the future of the sector – there are some issues which aren’t up for serious debate. A commitment to Widening Participation, and maintaining free access to education for home students, should remain central to our work, and I would argue is more important in the current economic circumstances than ever before, especially as the impact of the pandemic on young people and on inequality overall is becoming more evident by the day.
Similarly, we should take as read that we wish to maintain our international reputation for excellence in both teaching and research and to continue to punch above our weight in the World Top 200. The question is only how do we best achieve that in changing global circumstances.
In my view, this will require a recognition of a diversity of mission within the sector, meaning that each institution plays to its own strengths rather than trying to be all things to all people, and concentrating activity where it can make the most impact. This will help to ensure those universities which can develop a critical mass in research and innovation are supported to do so in order to leverage maximum economic benefit for the country and ensure we retain our reputation for excellence around the globe.
This could stem from closer collaboration both within and between the college and university sectors on a regional basis, which would allow research expertise from a range of stakeholders and industry partners to be connected to the innovation base of our large research-intensive universities. This would allow institutions with only limited amounts of research activity to benefit from links with research-intensives, which focussing research and innovation efforts where they are likely to generate the maximum economic return. Indeed this was at the heart of some of the recommendations in my report last year to Scottish Government on research and innovation. Equally, closer integration of the further and higher education sectors could be an exciting opportunity to improve the learner journey, and allow easier transitions between schools, colleges and universities.
Of course, I approach this debate as the Principal of a leading research-intensive university. Others at smaller institutions, those universities with less of a research focus or in our colleges may take different views.
But all the evidence from the SFC Review thus far suggests that while there will be different views on the way ahead, there is a common goal – to see our colleges and universities deliver the greatest social and economic impact here in Scotland, and to maintain our reputation across the globe.