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The Herald HE Awards 18 showed once again how much there is to celebrate in Scottish colleges and universities.

Banner image for Celebrating talentNews – Herald Higher Education Awards

The Scottish Funding Council occupies a privileged position in the world of colleges and universities.

We have this incredible responsibility of allocating £1.8 billion of funding for teaching, research and the other essentials of further and higher education. But this is not what defines us. What defines us is how well we’re able to support colleges and universities to achieve important things for learners, the future economy and for our wider society.

Yesterday evening at the Herald HE awards we were able to celebrate what colleges and universities have achieved over the past year. If you take a look at the categories for last night’s awards you get a sense of the significance of those achievements. We celebrated quality in both individual and institutional work in higher education. We celebrated how colleges and universities support their students both as people and as academic achievers. We celebrated Scotland’s world-leading academic research and its continuing ability to innovate. We celebrated how colleges and universities work hard to spread the benefits of their work to the people who create jobs and build industries. We also celebrated how well people work together in higher education. Finally, we celebrated people’s efforts to make higher education more inclusive and more able to include the most talented learners – no matter what their backgrounds.

Because the Scottish Funding Council sponsored last night’s awards for partnership and widening access I’d like to talk a bit more about these two things.

Herald HE AwardsI happen to believe Scotland is really good at partnerships. We’re a small and closely connected country. We’ve exploited this to good effect in the SFC-funded research pools and innovation centres which are partnerships between global institutions that could be competitors but, being within close proximity and having a common purpose, collaborate extremely effectively. I’m often asked why other countries can’t replicate this and the answer is “because they’re not Scotland”.

On widening access I’m clear that this is our greatest challenge and our biggest priority in higher education. We simply can’t afford to waste talent and restrict people’s life chances because of deprivation – it’s not fair and it’s not clever. The First Minister set us a challenge in her 2014 Programme for Government when she wanted us to determine that a child born today in one of Scotland’s most deprived communities will, by the time he or she leaves school, have the same chance of going to university as a child born in one of our least deprived communities. We’re all working very hard at this and every successful project now is a beacon of hope for the future.

There’s one award category I didn’t mention in the earlier roll call and that’s Campaign of the Year; the one that recognises outstanding communication. The Scottish Funding Council sometimes plays host to overseas visitors coming to Scotland to find out what makes higher education here so good. They often seem to appreciate the excellence of Scotland’s higher education system more than we do ourselves. I think, for example, that it matters that people know that Scotland has five universities in the world’s top 200 higher education institutes and I think it matters that people know that over 87% of college HE learners are satisfied with their educational experience.

So I want to finish by thanking the Herald for its excellent efforts to shine the spotlight on Scottish higher education. It is something we all have a stake in and something we can all justifiably be proud of.