Event Summary: CDN launches college sector International Ambitions research report

Read the report here

This week we launched the first in a new series of CDN research reports. This important piece of research, titled ‘International Ambitions – An Analysis of Internationalisation Across the Scottish College Sector’, shows that Scotland’s college sector is in a strong position to contribute to Scotland’s international ambitions. The report was commissioned by CDN, with the support of the Scottish Government, Scottish Development International, and British Council Scotland. CDN’s partners at the Association of Colleges conducted the research.

The report follows on from the publication of “The Cumberford-Little Report, One Tertiary System: Agile, Collaborative, Inclusive”, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government to consider what more Scottish colleges can do to help improve business performance and productivity. This new piece of research takes that a step further, exploring the sector’s current strengths on the international sector as well as opportunities that are available.

The report, which is the first report of its kind for colleges in the UK, was launched on CDN’s brand new virtual conference platform on Wednesday 16 September. The event was hosted by Jim Metcalfe, Chief Executive of CDN, who said: ‘This is a great way to start our research programme!’ We were delighted to welcome Ivan McKee MSP, Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation, who opened the event, and we also heard from Edinburgh College’s International Business Manager Sarah Gore. Event speakers included Emma Meredith, International Director, and Mary Kent, Researcher Consultant from the Association of Colleges, the report’s authors.

Mr McKee started off by thanking colleges for all the hard work they have been doing during COVID-19, and said that he recognises the huge role colleges will play as we drive a skills job-led recovery in Scotland. He said: ‘The report plays into the Team Scotland approach that we place great value on – all of Team Scotland working together to help deliver on the international agenda. The college sector is a key driver in internationalisation and inward investment. A key part of recovery post-COVID will be a focus on digital skills for economic recovery and for resilience.’

So, where are we now?

Emma Meredith explained that currently there are really impressive, ambitious and innovative ways in which Scottish colleges are engaging internationally. She told us that the broad definition of ‘internationalisation’ that they worked to in the report was the way in which colleges will engage in an inter-cultural or an international way with a partner overseas, and how they look to embed or integrate a sense of internationalisation and inter-culturalism within the college.

Emma said: ‘There are over 130 nationalities represented amongst the student body in Scottish colleges. Scottish colleges have the highest per capita funding level for ERASMUS + programmes, and there are a huge range of ways in which colleges are already internationalising.’

The report looks at ways in which Scottish colleges are already internationalising and why they are doing this, whether this be for commercial purposes, student enrichment or CPD. The research took place in late March/ April, at the start of lockdown.

Mary Kent said: ‘This report was a great challenge and a great privilege to take part in. We would like to thank everyone who very generously gave up their time during a period in which colleges had so much going on.’

She added: ‘We interviewed a large number of college Principals, governors, deputees and college stakeholders to get a very wide view of what is going on in the sector. What really came through in our research is that all of the colleges, in their unique ways, demonstrated an integration of internationalised perspectives.’

What makes Scotland’s college sector stand out on an international stage?

Colleges are unique institutions, Mary explained. ‘Each college is a product and a response to their own community. As a Scottish sector, the offer is very formidable. The report shows some very satisfying graphics showing the Scottish footprint across almost all corners of the globe. The research mapped against the subject specialism and sector strengths listed in the Scottish Government’s strategy, “A Trading Nation – A plan For Growing Scotland’s Exports”.’

There is great strength in: engineering, low carbon technology, food & drink, tourism, creative industries, the space sector – a product of college alignment with the employment skills needs.

As a way of trying to measure the standard of the skills provision, the report authors analysed the number of finalists that Scotland sent to the World Skills competition. In 2019, the number of finalists in the UK World Skills heats for Scotland per capita was almost twice that of the UK. ‘That is a brilliant story to tell inward investors about the skills pipeline,’ Mary said.

Scottish college strengths are not necessarily subject areas, Mary added, saying that these should not be overlooked as international assets. Examples include Scotland’s qualifications framework, which encompasses both academic and vocational training and qualifications.

Mary said: ‘That is highly attractive and desirable for countries seeking to improve their national skills systems. Skills reform is urgent and critical for many countries like, and has become more of a priority with the job losses that have come about as a result of COVID-19. Governments are really reaching out to international partners.’

What’s holding Scotland’s college sector back?

Emma explained that what is holding the sector back falls into two categories: systemic issues and policy areas.

She said: ‘UK Immigration policy means that colleges in Scotland aren’t really engaging in student recruitment. Also, in our research Brexit came out almost more strongly as a concern than COVID. The research shows that colleges are worried about the future for Scotland when it comes to engaging with Europe. The good news is that some of these constraints can probably be worked through or adapted to.’

Report Recommendations

The report authors told us that the research gives a sense of the expertise that exists in the college sector, telling a story of great progress, as well as providing a sense of the scale of the opportunity.

Mary said: ‘Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Economic Forum launched its estimate that 1 billion individuals globally will need to be reskilled before 2030. That was last year’s figure and this year’s figure will be far higher.’

The report offers five recommendations that colleges should focus on when it comes to internationalising. They are:

1) The establishment of a strategic voice to represent the sector
2) The college sector needs to be included in Scotland’s international agenda
3) The development of sector-wide data sharing, marketing and communications
4) The exploration of a collective approach
5) The engagement of colleges within Scotland’s International Alumni Plan

Emma explained that the college sector and leads need to decide how to move forward with the report findings. She said: ‘This is about greater engagement for colleges. There is no time like the present to progress and take this work forward.’

The full report is available to read and download here.



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