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30 years since the 1992 Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act paved the way for the ‘modern’ university, Professor Andrea Nolan reflects on their amazing achievements.

Banner image for Proud to be modern

The 30th anniversary of the 1992 Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on the development and growth of Scotland’s ‘modern’ universities.

Letters spelling 'polytechnic' and 'university'

Established as a technical college in 1964 with just over 800 students, Edinburgh Napier is a good example. Its mission was to provide skills for the regional economy by being responsive to employers’ needs, and early courses ranged from office administration to motor mechanics and boat building.

Subsequent mergers with Edinburgh College of Commerce, Lothian College of Health Studies and the Scottish Borders College of Nursing fuelled growth and laid the foundations for the broad-based university we are today, with a diverse community of around 21,000 students from 140 countries.

In 2022 we were acknowledged as the number one modern university in Scotland (Sunday Times GUG 2022) and 7th in the UK (out of over 70 universities), while retaining our position as number one for student satisfaction in the Edinburgh region, and even the number one university in Scotland for environmental sustainability (People and Planet 2022). We have come a long way in a short time.

We are, of course, not alone in making a significant mark on the Scottish higher education landscape. The polytechnic foundations and principles honoured by the now seven Scottish moderns mean we have brought to the HE sector an unapologetically enterprising focus on employability, applied learning, the professions, challenge-led research, knowledge transfer, and widening participation – and Scotland is richer for it.

Together our universities have opened the door to higher education for thousands of people for whom, 30 years ago, a university degree was out of reach. Today we provide an educational home to 60 percent of students from Scotland’s most disadvantaged backgrounds, we support the learning of two thirds of Scotland’s full-time mature students and 42 percent of all care-experienced students, and we are proud that seven out of every 10 students articulating into university from college in Scotland join a modern (SFC, 2020; MillionPlus, 2021).

Our universities are fundamental to the delivery of our public services, while simultaneously being at the vanguard of 21st-century workforce education: for example, we educate over 70 percent of nursing and midwifery students in partnership with all NHS Boards in Scotland as well as the majority of allied health professionals and social workers.

Through ongoing innovation in our curriculum, we prepare students for developing and new industries such as the games industry, one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, while building skills in artificial intelligence, data science, cybersecurity and a range of emerging technologies vital for Industry 4.0. We also support cultural engagement and development, providing an array of talent for the thriving creative industries which contribute £5bn to the Scottish economy and employ over 70,000 people.

We have also responded to the growing demand for higher education internationally, not only by attracting students to study in Scotland who enrich our learning and research environments and our culture, but also by delivering degree programmes in many countries around the world; indeed 58 percent of education provided internationally to students in their ‘home’ countries by Scottish institutions is delivered by the moderns.

Over the past 30 years we have built a research base focussing on the needs of business, public and third sectors, and directed our energies to translating new knowledge into practical applications. Edinburgh Napier’s research is making a tangible difference in areas that include cardiovascular healthcare, modern policing practice and the future of artificial intelligence, while our spinout companies are tackling challenges from ransomware attacks to finding and blocking harmful online content.

Together the modern universities take pride in nurturing entrepreneurs of the future, accounting for a third of all Scottish graduate start-ups and 35 percent of social enterprises in higher education (MillionPlus, 2021). At Edinburgh Napier, we have supported more than 600 new start-up companies over the past five years in our incubator.

The journey of the post-92 moderns has been remarkable. Created in a challenging economic environment, tasked with expanding the reach and impact of higher education, we have surely exceeded expectations. The enterprising spirit, agility and ingenuity which underpinned our extraordinary growth as new entrants into a higher education environment with many long-established institutions drove our success. Today, this spirt lives on in all that we do. We are not all the same; we have developed and diversified to support the communities we serve, across Scotland and beyond, with an unerring focus on their needs. In driving diversity in the Scottish university landscape, we have promoted innovation and built resilience and become a model for 21st-century higher education.