Education slips down the SNP’s list of priorities - Sue Webber

Readers with long memories may recall that education was once an SNP priority.
Sue Webber is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the LothiansSue Webber is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Lothians
Sue Webber is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Lothians

Closing the attainment gap was Nicola Sturgeon’s guiding mission when she assumed control, until it wasn’t and she gave up trying, removing Scotland from international education measurements to cover her tracks.

Before her, Alex Salmond told us the rocks will melt in the sun before there are university tuition fees in Scotland, without making realistic plans to secure the long-term funding of Scottish higher education.

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This week we have seen what happens when one policy hits the other, when the drive to push more young people into universities at the expense of further education and apprenticeships has collided with the lack of a sustainable funding structure.

Jenny Gilruth has only been education secretary a matter of weeks and one of her first acts has been to write to the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), which funnels government cash to universities and colleges, to tell it next year’s expected £46m budget uplift ─ about £1m for each FE college ─ will not now be paid. The SFC has been left with what is effectively a massive cut as tertiary education wrestles with rising costs like every other organisation.

Educational chickens have come home to roost, and it is young people who will bear the brunt. Although it would be fanciful to argue that difficult choices could have been totally avoided in such harsh economic times, different approaches would have avoided the cliff edge over which Ms Gilruth has been forced to shove our colleges and universities.

“I look forward to working closely with you to support colleges and universities in achieving greater financial stability,” wrote Ms Gilruth to the SFC chief executive Karen Scott, which sounded more like an offer to help identify what could go.

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For years, the SNP has treated the vocational college sector as the Cinderellas of tertiary education, underplaying the vital role it plays in providing a flexible, well-trained workforce, in favour of universities and their much more expensive general arts courses which might cater for personal interests but with less prospect of a job which matches expectations.

A complete overhaul of tertiary education is now needed to make sure the future is genuinely sustainable. That also means taking apprenticeships seriously, and properly recognising the vital role colleges play in the country’s economic future, but it also means being honest about the value, necessity and cost of the traditional basic four-year-Scottish university degree.

In these days of Advanced Highers, students can spend their first year going over old ground, and if you can graduate in three years from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford or Cambridge it should be good enough for us.

But university is not for everyone, and the Scottish Government should have done much more to get businesses into our schools and colleges at the earliest stage possible to develop alternative learning pathways and professional apprenticeships as an attractive alternative to full-time courses.

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Only last month, the Scottish Training Federation complained that around 1,000 employers had to put trainee recruitment plans on hold because of a freeze on the Modern Apprenticeship scheme.

We need a guarantee that skills demand from employers will be fully met, otherwise it’s not just apprenticeships being cut off at the knees, but the whole Scottish economy.

Sue Webber is a Lothian Scottish Conservative MSP