Response to the Cumberford-Little Report

The RSE has provided a letter response to the Cumberford-Little Report on the economic impact of Scottish colleges. This response is a joint response from our Education Committee, and Economy and Enterprise Committee, and follows our initial response to the review last year. This will feed into the upcoming work by the RSE on Tertiary Education Futures.

Paper Summary

The Scottish Government commissioned review into the economic impact of Scottish colleges last year was welcomed and supported by the Royal Society of Scotland (RSE). We had recommended a review of the impact of colleges in our response to the Muscatelli review of the economic impact of universities. The Cumberford-Little report, published in February, provides a valuable analysis of the role, contribution and impact of our colleges and is broadly welcomed by the RSE. We would like to take this opportunity to congratulate and thank Audrey and Paul for delivering a comprehensive and well-illustrated account of the work of colleges and of its relevance to society and the economy.

The report was published just before the COVID-19 pandemic, and prior to this, the RSE was planning to produce a detailed response to the report. However, due to changing circumstances and priorities, we have opted to provide our considerations on the issues of importance via this letter. This will feed into a project on Tertiary Education Futures being undertaken by the RSE and the Young Academy of Scotland (YAS). The future of tertiary education is a subject that will also be explored through the work of the RSE’s Post-COVID-19 Futures Commission.

The RSE response to the review highlighted several key issues that the report should consider, including the financial context in which colleges are operating, the role of colleges in developing innovation, the provision of lifelong learning, and evaluating the impact of colleges. We are pleased to note that the report has covered certain aspects of these issues in detail.

The report’s recommendations demonstrate the ambition and agility of the sector in supporting the needs of the Scottish economy and our communities. This ambition is evident through the vision for ‘21st-century colleges’ that the report presents. We agree that 21st-century colleges should provide world-class lifetime learning, training, and high-quality employer support, in conjunction with equipping individuals with the skills they need to be successful in life and work. We believe that the education and skills provision of ‘21st-century colleges’ should facilitate interdisciplinary learning (IDL). Our work in this area has demonstrated the importance and value of IDL in developing ways of thinking and working that help address contemporary societal challenges such as climate change and sustainability.

The core curriculum of colleges and the qualifications that they offer are of critical value to the economy through the skills acquired by their students. It will also be vital to recognise that employment tasks and working patterns are and will continue to change rapidly, making it necessary to develop the right blend of skills, knowledge and practical application for the future workforce. Therefore, we would recommend that the provision is demand-led to encourage colleges to understand and meet the current and future needs of employers.

While we agree that 21st-century colleges also have a vital role in addressing societal issues such as inequalities, the report fails to convincingly illustrate what colleges themselves can do, specifically, to tackle these issues and provide solutions. Instead, the majority of recommendations are directed at the Scottish Government and its agencies. While colleges should be encouraged to explore interventions and initiatives that can help to address these issues, we acknowledge that given the complexities involved, they cannot be solved by colleges alone. This will require the establishment of a coherent tertiary system that is aimed at providing a variety of pathways into learning and work, which will address the key societal challenges that have been brought further into the spotlight by the pandemic.