Why university crisis should see a return to technical college-style courses – John McLellan

With higher education facing huge losses amid the coronavirus pandemic, shorter, more vocational courses might be just what the economy needs, writes John McLellan.
The collapse of the international student market will have a profound impact on Scottish universities (Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire)The collapse of the international student market will have a profound impact on Scottish universities (Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire)
The collapse of the international student market will have a profound impact on Scottish universities (Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire)

Universities Scotland has given the clearest signal yet that upheaval within Scottish higher education is unavoidable as it faces losses of £500m this year from the collapse of the international student market.

The sector relied on overseas students jetting in for very expensive post-graduate courses to keep the Scottish Government’s bill for Scottish undergraduates to minimum; for every complaint about student flats, a Scottish student was able to study here because of the influx. The implications are vast, particularly for attracting those talented in information technology who might otherwise have settled here.

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With four universities the opportunity for reorganisation is there, and already there is talk of a merger of Queen Margaret’s excellent nursing and physiotherapy departments with Edinburgh University’s medical school in the Bioquarter.

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Throw in Edinburgh College and it becomes a game of fantasy higher education by department and location. Edinburgh College and Napier at Sighthill? QM taking over Edinburgh College’s Milton campus?

Tying in Edinburgh College might have been simpler had the vocationally-driven Napier and QM not been part of the rush to university status in the 90s sparked by then Prime Minister John Major, but none of it is without huge challenges.

But at its heart must be a reappraisal about what post-school education is all about. We have students leaving school to go to college who then go to university to study the same subject and university graduates on masters courses which extend the “university experience” but add nothing to their employability. It can mean school leavers spending five years to achieve something formerly delivered in one or two years by the technical colleges.

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It might be tempting for the big guns to argue FE colleges should be absorbed, but maybe it should be the other way round. Vocational training, block release and shorter, practical bang-for-your-buck courses must surely be the future in a world which will be driven by necessity.

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