EVERY day this week, hundreds of students beaming from ear-to-ear are filling the McEwan Hall to receive their graduation certificates, watched on by proud parents, friends or loved ones.
Elsewhere in the city, youngsters have finished their courses at other universities and colleges, while thousands of teenagers have left school for the final time as they head off for new challenges.
This generation of school, college and university leavers faces a very different future to past generations.
When I graduated – which was not as long ago as you might think – mobile phones were only used for making calls and sending texts. If I wanted information on a topic I had to go to the library or a coffee shop where the internet cost more per half hour than my frothy cappuccino. Essays were handwritten, computers were in labs, songs were bought on CDs in shops, email addresses were a strange collection of numbers and letters.
Today, young people can just reach into their pockets and a world of information and enjoyment is at their fingertips. The changes I have seen are nothing compared to what stands ahead of those graduating this summer. In the years ahead, there will be incredible technological advances, with newly invented jobs we have not even heard of yet.
My generation knew that we would have to compete with globalisation and the impact of the internet; today’s generation will not only have to compete with that, but also automation and artificial intelligence. The rise of automation in so-called ‘middle class’ professions will put jobs at risk that only a few years ago we never thought could be risk of being replaced by machines. Algorithms can now produce contracts faster and better than lawyers. Apps are replacing banking clerks and branches.
The first wave of automation destroyed the heavy industries that Scotland relied upon. The latest wave could do the same if we don’t plan for the future. So if innovative tech is set to replace skilled jobs, we need to be at the cutting edge of that sector.
Edinburgh is in a prime position to take advantage of these new job opportunities. We have some of the finest educational institutions in the country, and we attract some of the brightest and best to the capital.
However, we are competing on a global stage, innovations in this city around “FinTech” (financial technology) are leading the world. It’s creating new, well-paid jobs, but not at the pace we need them to replace all those lost. The skills needed are also different, which is where the government comes in. It must think radically about how we can drive growth through our capital and equally radically about how we share it. Cutting education budgets when our economy faces such significant challenges is totally irresponsible. It doesn’t just limit the opportunities of those graduating this week, it will harm our economy in the future.
The way the SNP has decimated college places across Scotland is so short-sighted. It could have a devastating, long-lasting impact.
University places are steady, but access to those places is still dominated by those from wealthy backgrounds and those who leave will have higher debts than anyone before them. That has to change. Among those graduating this week will be new doctors, lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs. I hope there are many young people who are committed to public service and some who are even considering entering politics.
We will need their knowledge in the years ahead and their understanding that as a country we can no longer look inwards, but must look across oceans and continents to equip people for the world of tomorrow. So congratulations to everyone who has finished their studies. You are our future, and it is going to be an exciting journey.