Steve Tinsley: Exporting skills could boost business

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FROM summer 2013, I spent a year as principal of a college in the desert near the holy city of Mecca. During this time, I compared and contrasted two major skills development programmes, one in Scotland and one in Saudi Arabia – and considered how they might work together.

Before moving to Saudi, I was vice-principal at Edinburgh College and worked on creating the new city-wide college – the first of many mergers encouraged by the Scottish Government and designed to reduce 43 colleges to 13 regional centres, to offer Scotland’s young people the high-quality skills needed to create a modern, vibrant economy.

Mecca College was part of a ten-year programme to construct 100 new colleges and increase the number of students with vocational skills from 100,000 to 400,000. The Saudi government recognised it needed a skilled workforce and to reduce its traditional expat workforce.

In 2013, I was involved in the first bidding round for Saudi colleges. Saudi officials were delighted to have interest from Edinburgh College as they wanted what they called the “Edinburgh brand” – synonymous with high-quality education, innovation and culture – to be linked with their reform programme. Every Saudi official I met wanted to visit Edinburgh and those who had visited, loved its grandeur and history, its great hotels and restaurants – and shortbread!

I’m sure Edinburgh College would have been awarded a Saudi college to operate – but due largely to the demands of the merger process, it seemed the right decision to withdraw. However, I was taken with the ambition and scale of the plans and when approached to set up Mecca College, I couldn’t refuse. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and one reason for getting the job was my knowledge of Scottish education and links with Edinburgh.

In 2013 and 2014, the Saudi government contracted with American, Spanish and English education providers to operate 37 colleges. From 2015, 10-20 new colleges will be contracted out every year.

Two English college groupings have been awarded four Saudi colleges, but although several Scottish colleges have started the process, none have moved to the final stage – 
possibly due to the demands of mergers, but certainly not because of the lack of potential reward. The commercial opportunities for Scotland’s colleges and universities generally and Edinburgh College and the Edinburgh brand specifically, are significant; five-year contracts, valued on average at £75m per college.

There are risks, which are potentially high if deciding to go it alone. However, a consortium of partners with educational, international, business and political skills could maximise opportunities and minimise risks.

Future funding for Scottish education is likely to suffer downward pressure and the opportunity to export educational skills and operate Saudi colleges is an attractive proposition to generate additional income.

Leading with the respected Edinburgh brand, there would be many knowledge exchange programmes and business development opportunities created if a Scottish education consortium had formal Saudi connections over a five-year period – including engineering, construction, finance and insurance, hospitality and leisure.

Exporting skills and knowledge could help Scotland’s businesses expand into new international markets – taking advantage of the Edinburgh brand not just in Saudi Arabia but the wider world.

Professor Steve Tinsley is a former vice-principal at Edinburgh College and former principal at Mecca College in Saudi Arabia