Competence at the core: Scotland’s tertiary system in a changing world

Douglas Morrison argues for a shift towards competence-based education, which integrates knowledge, skills, behaviours, and experiences as core principles for policy development.

Douglas Morrison, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at Built Environment – Smarter Transformation | Photo credit: Ian Georgeson

I am a proud product of the Scottish education system. Having left school at fifteen to pursue a career in the Royal Navy, I returned to Scotland with my naval qualifications unrecognised and my employment options restricted. I was fortunate to secure an apprenticeship as a stonemason and began my learning journey at Glasgow College of Building and Printing, now City of Glasgow College, where I was supported by highly skilled lecturers with industry relevant expertise and a keen awareness of good educational practice.

Having completed my apprenticeship, I secured a lecturing role at the College and went on to become qualified as a teacher in further education at the University of Dundee. I subsequently enrolled in a business degree at Glasgow Caledonian University, followed by a master’s degree in technology enhanced learning at the University of Strathclyde – supported throughout by exceptional lecturers, supervisors, and support services.

Whilst my journey is by no means unique, I have the unusual privilege of having engaged with Scotland’s education system from a multitude of perspectives – as an apprentice, an educator and lifelong learner, and latterly as Deputy Chief Executive Officer at Built Environment – Smarter Transformation and recently appointed Chair of South Lanarkshire College.

Perhaps it is time that we consider placing ‘competence’ – the combination of knowledge, skills, behaviours, and experiences – at the heart of our policy development.

My appreciation for Scotland’s tertiary education sector remains undimmed although I now see a sector at an inflection point, struggling to maintain pace with an ever-evolving landscape, burdened by systemic challenges relating to fiscal restraints, diminishing student places and support services, policy uncertainty, and an increasingly cluttered and competitive operating environment.

Tension and misalignment between our educational and economic policies has created an environment in which we fluctuate between knowledge and skills focused economic models. The ‘parity of esteem’ between further and higher education continues to polarise and reinforces the public perception of ‘good’ and ‘compromise’ pathways. Societally, we value linear models of education, from school, to university, to employment, over lifelong flexible models, and gear our young people to value professional qualifications over vocational and technical equivalents.

Competence as a national utility, managing and investing in the supply and demand of skilled labour.

However, as we experience industrial shifts towards the integration of robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning alongside the decentralisation and democratisation of knowledge, perhaps it is time that we consider placing ‘competence’ – the combination of knowledge, skills, behaviours, and experiences – at the heart of our policy development.

I propose we position competence as a national utility, managing and investing in the supply and demand of skilled labour in line with our socio-economic policy objectives. This requires greater flexibility and funding models which are geared towards supporting our tertiary institutes to deliver a greater variety of programme types, specifically reducing full time provision, and boosting part time, short course, and micro credentialled learning opportunities.

In our response to a confluence of generational crisis and opportunity relating to climate change, energy security, geopolitical instability, and technological revolution, we need to further embrace interdisciplinary learning as an alternative to occupationally siloed pathways. We need to empower learners to have greater flexibility in pathways aligned with emergent opportunity to ensure they are developing industry relevant competencies that will enhance their employability and wider contribution to society.

Our tertiary institutes have been conceptualised as civic anchors and rightly so. We need to ensure however that the systemic challenges faced by the sector do not result in an anchoring effect on our socio-economic and environmental ambitions.

I believe an effective, adequately resourced tertiary education sector is the backbone of a well-functioning economy. The abundance of policy reviews and planned reforms led recently by the Scottish Government has created an environment of uncertainty for the sector and we desperately need to find a clear way forward to enable colleges and universities to collaboratively develop multi-year investment plans, engage in longer-term co-designed curriculum pathways, and demonstrate greater fiscal autonomy.

My ask therefore of those responsible for policy development is to place competence at the heart of our policy objectives by prioritising interdisciplinary learning alongside more flexible and customisable pathways. I believe that ensuring greater connectivity throughout our tertiary provision will enable current and future generations to experience the lifelong engagement I have had the privilege to enjoy and will ensure that Scotland is well equipped to embrace the challenges and opportunities ahead.


Douglas Morrison, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at Built Environment – Smarter Transformation; Chair of South Lanarkshire College, Young Academy of Scotland and RSE Education Committee member.

This article originally appeared in ReSourcE summer 2024.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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