‘Genuine partners with a common goal’: the keys to successful university-college collaborations

Tertiary Education Futures
Publication Date
Audrey Cumberford FRSE

From the urgent transition to a net zero economy to supporting people through changes in the world of work to addressing social and regional inequalities across Scotland – our colleges and universities have to be at the heart of Scottish Government’s ambitions to build a fairer, greener Scotland.

But the fact is, too often colleges and universities do not work as part of a joined-up system – instead acting as two very different sets of institutions. They can be disconnected, driven at times by distrust, at times disinterest. And the consequence of this is that we are not collectively meeting our full potential to deliver for all people, employers and communities across Scotland.

This challenge of university-college relationships isn’t solely a Scottish issue. Going further and higher: how collaboration between colleges and universities can transform lives and places, a recent report by the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, the Civic University Network and Sheffield Hallam University, notes that these issues exist across all four nations of the UK as well as internationally – reflecting cultural and historical bias, and policy choices governments have made over a matter of many decades, resulting in inequitable funding and student finance and systems which are far too siloed and disconnected.

We need to see local collaboration not as an optional extra for when we have a spare moment, and not something for other people to bother about, but as being a fundamental concern for us all.

Audrey Cumberford

Despite these challenges, we’ve in fact made considerable strides forward to redress these issues in Scotland over the past two decades, and in many ways Scotland fares much better when it comes to collaboration across the tertiary education system than other UK nations. Today’s report highlights articulation agreements as a particular strength of our system, which – where they work well – can enable people to progress onto degree programmes directly from college without having to re-take years of education. And it raises a range of exemplary local practices that exist across Scotland too – including flexible degree pathways developed between the Open University (OU) and Ayrshire College, Fife College and City of Glasgow College, The BP Mauritania and Senegal National Apprentice Technician Training Programme delivered in partnership between Forth Valley College, Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) and BP, and a Data Driven Innovation (DDI) skills programme delivered by Edinburgh College – where I am Principal – and the universities across the Edinburgh region.

We should be proud of all of this – and these represent elements where other UK nations can certainly learn from our approach. And yet we’ve still got a long way to go if we are to have an education and skills system that is able to meet the challenges of tomorrow, providing a genuinely lifetime service to people, a strategic resource for employers, and to be properly embedded as an anchor within our communities.

This requires further change from Scottish Government – and I hope the recommendations of the report will be given due consideration, alongside other recent sectoral reports including the Cumberford-Little report I co-wrote for Scottish Government in January 2019. This has included a new statement of ambition for the Scottish tertiary education system, as well as looking at a more equitable approach to funding and student finance across the system.

But we must also be clear that this isn’t a problem for Scottish Government to fix alone – there is a huge amount more than university and college leaders can and must do. We need to see local collaboration not as an optional extra for when we have a spare moment, and not something for other people to bother about, but as being a fundamental concern for us all.

This means building on the success of articulation agreements where they work well, and developing them where they do not yet exist. It means working together in new ways to support employers of all sizes with innovation and business change, and taking a more active, joined-up approach to regional economic development and our urgent transition to a green economy. It means developing a much more joined-up local approach to careers information, advice and guidance, and it means playing our full role in tackling digital poverty and digital exclusion. It means doing much more to offer opportunities for people across our communities to access all that we have to offer, whether or not they choose to study with us – opening up our institutions as recognised community assets, which support public health and social integration.

It means doing all of this and more, together as genuine partners with a common goal. And it means embedding this joined-up approach into our very fabrics, so that good university-college partnerships aren’t reliant on whoever happens to be the Principal at the time – and it means us being held accountable to this way of working.

We have real strengths to build on, locally and nationally, and so I’m hopeful that we can develop the agile, collaborative and inclusive tertiary system that we will need to meet Scottish Government’s ambitions for a fairer, greener Scotland. I hope the report can act as a call to arms for concerted and consistent action to make this a reality.

Audrey Cumberford FRSE MBE, Principal & CEO of Scotland’s Capital College, Edinburgh College is one of Scotland’s longest serving Principals and Chair of the College Principals Group. Audrey is a member of the Government’s Strategic Enterprise & Skills Board and is committed to helping to lead and shape the future of the college sector. She co-authored the Cumberford-Little report One tertiary system: agile, collaborative, inclusive and the Scottish College of the Future.

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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