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Reflecting on SFC’s latest widening access report, Dr Paul Little argues that future economic success depends on harnessing the impact, innovation and expertise of Scotland’s colleges.

Scotland’s vision of becoming a fairer and more prosperous society, where everyone can access high-quality education and contribute to the economy demands a coherent and purposeful tertiary education system that responds agilely and effectively to learners’ needs – as well as to those of employers and neighbourhood communities.

One particular challenge facing the tertiary system is delivering fair access to higher education (HE) for all learners, especially those from disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable backgrounds. This is not only a matter of social justice but an economic imperative since Scotland needs a diverse and skilled workforce to underpin regional economies whilst also to better compete in a highly competitive global market.

Reflecting over a lifetime in education and skills design I am crystal clear that economic success is only possible by harnessing the collective impact, innovation and expertise of Scotland’s colleges – veritable anchor institutions often located at the very heart of our communities and hardwired into their respective SME networks. Colleges spearhead multiple pathways of fair access to frontskilling, reskilling and upskilling enriching lives and building careers.

As Principal and CEO of City of Glasgow College, Scotland’s Super College, one of the largest tertiary institutions with 40,000 enrolments in the UK, and as the founding Chair of the Scottish Funding Council’s Skills Enhancement, Access and Learning (SEAL) Committee I am really pleased to see the positive progress Scotland’s tertiary system is making in securing fair access in Scotland, despite the legacy challenges from the ravages of lost learning from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Cumberford-Little Report which I co-authored in 2020 highlighted the profound and pivotal impact that Scottish colleges have had on our economy including enabling businesses to flourish and grow. But it is also clear that this growth must be fair and inclusive, reaching everyone and using all our talents. Put simply, Scotland’s colleges are at the fulcrum in achieving this.

The latest SFC report on widening access (ROWA) perfectly illustrates this impact: Scotland’s colleges are making a substantial contribution to tertiary education, delivering a quarter of all enrolments to full time HE courses, and over a third of full-time further education enrolments from the 20% most deprived areas.

The ROWA report also outlines colleges’ vital role in partnering with our universities to achieve a similar level of equity for Scotland’s learners, particularly in helping them respond to the call from the former First Minister – to secure 18% of their Scottish domiciled first-degree intake from the 20% most deprived postcodes in Scotland by 2026 and 20% by 2030.

The ROWA report shows that the university sector achieved a record intake of 16.5% from the 20% most deprived communities in academic year 2021-22. This represents 5,595 entrants, a record high. I congratulate our universities on their achievements to date and am sure they would join me in recognising colleges’ ‘heavy lifting’ as a vital ingredient of the universities’ success. This symbiotic partnership highlights how a coherent and connected tertiary sector or one tertiary system is the bedrock of Scottish Ministers’ vision for equity in post-school learning.

What is striking about that achievement is that 2,570 of those entrants- some 46% – came from the college sector, looking to build on the skills and qualifications already achieved in the tertiary system. Furthermore, in considering fair access to full time higher education in both sectors, 20% already come from the 20% most deprived communities.

The Cumberford-Little Report recognised colleges as civic anchors for students from a diverse range of backgrounds including those with care-experience, caring responsibilities, estranged students, ethnic minority students and many more. It also demonstrated colleges’ strength in supporting those with no qualifications right up to those looking to complete degree level study.

I am therefore heartened to see from the ROWA report that articulation remains a strong feature in the tertiary system, with 54% of HN college students entering university in year 2 or 3, almost a quarter of them coming from our most deprived communities. The Scottish tertiary system must, however, continue to enable students of all abilities to build on their learning to progress and exit the system with pathways that don’t require repeating levels previously attained, regardless of the receiving institution.

The benefit of this approach is that not only does it deliver fairness for the student and better value for the public pound, but these routes also benefit from the strong fair access representation already evident in our colleges.

The many successes outlined in the ROWA report really do matter. This is not simply about a political commitment (though that is important); nor is it to help realise the former FM’s vision of fair access. It matters because research shows that skills and education are absolutely the most important means of helping people and their families out of poverty and, crucially, sustaining a life out of poverty. Prioritising those with the most to gain will not only deliver the moral imperative to deliver equity for those from our deprived communities; it will also accelerate Scotland’s economic and social growth. Our tertiary system must therefore continue to evolve to deliver more consistently and more often equitable outcomes that all Scotland’s learners deserve.