Lifelong learners will profit from devolution

July 23, 1999

Devolution is opening up "a new and positive era" for Scottish further and higher education, according to Henry McLeish, Scotland's enterprise and lifelong learning minister, writes Olga Wojtas.

Mr McLeish, a former lecturer at Heriot-Watt University and chairman of Fife regional council's further education committee, was a key architect of Scotland's new parliamentary system, which includes a powerful enterprise and lifelong learning committee with the power to initiate legislation.

Mr McLeish said the tertiary sector would benefit from having a high-powered committee taking an active interest in promoting further and higher education.

He said: "The committee will want to scrutinise the finance to ensure it is spent in a more effective way and look at the positive outcomes of that finance. That never happened in Westminster. It will allow the organisations in further and higher education not only to get close to ministers but to a group of politicians who are going to be very influential."

Mr McLeish said nothing better illustrated the new politics than the fact that the committee is chaired by an opposition politician, Scottish National Party deputy leader John Swinney.

"Proportional representation is not just about seats in the election, it is about the distribution of committee places and chairpersons," Mr McLeish said.

He acknowledged that some academics feared devolution would lead to parochialism but dismissed such fears: "Devolution is about bringing powers from London to Edinburgh, not about closing down Scotland's vision of the wider world. It is a boost to the international dimension of higher education. Historically, Scotland has been international in its outlook - we can learn from other countries and they can learn from us."

Mr McLeish is also concerned to promote genuine lifelong learning.

"For a productive economy, for individual self-development and, from my point of view, a civilised and thoughtful nation, it is absolutely vital that people can dip in when they want and dip out when they want. The main thing is for government to make sure that there are no barriers. That is the difference between the learning nation as a fanciful aspiration and as a working concept that can take us forward," he said.

He predicts a "great future" for the further education colleges in work ranging from higher education to community provision.

"I am keen to make sure they do not think that they are in any way playing second fiddle to the university sector. Their contribution is going to be crucial, especially in skills development. They have done extraordinarily well since incorporation. A great deal has been done, but their real potential is still to be realised."

Mr McLeish is also determined to use his role as minister for enterprise and lifelong learning to bring education and industry more closely together. Skills development must not be confined to sub-degree courses or in-house training, he said, but should include ambitious specialist programmes for postgraduates, geared to meeting industry's needs.

Another key priority is commercialising academic research.

"It is clear that we have got to do more to turn products from the lab into products in business - and for this to occur within Scotland," Mr McLeish said.

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