3.1 We have earlier highlighted the distinctiveness of Scottish higher education and we firmly believe in the value of preserving this in future. The remainder of the report sets out our view of how Scottish higher education should evolve over the next 20 years. This chapter provides a brief overview of what needs to be achieved.

3.2 Many submissions we have received have also attested to the fact that Scottish higher education is part of the wider United Kingdom (UK) system and that this is an important strength. We support this view. Our vision for the future of higher education in Scotland therefore accords with the vision of the National Committee, whose principles for a world class, high quality, responsive UK higher education system, within a learning society, we fully endorse.

3.3 A major strength of Scottish higher education is its tradition of access and participation. We believe that, provided the quality of provision can be assured as set out in our recommendations, expansion of full-time student numbers should be restored. By the end of the 20-year timeframe for the scope of the Inquiry, we envisage a student population which is even more diverse in terms of age, background, aspiration, ability and purpose. More people of all ages will wish to access higher education throughout their lives, although the traditional cohort of school-leavers will still be a large and important single group. Lifelong learning will, therefore, be all pervasive and work-based learning more common. Higher education providers will be required to tailor courses and the pace of learning to meet the needs of the individual as an active and informed consumer. They must meet the needs of students for both advanced learning and skills for employment.

3.4 Higher education has always had an important role in contributing to the skills of the Scottish and wider UK workforce, and the economic performance of the nation, but we agree with the National Committee that it has now moved centre-stage and will have a key influence on the success of the economy in the next century. Higher education must encourage in individuals the flexibility to develop the transferable skills which the fast-moving economic, working and social environment of the twenty-first century will require.

3.5 We have a clear vision of how Scottish higher education should develop to face the challenges of the next 20 years. In so doing, we are fully aware that for over 500 years Scottish higher education institutions have played a vital role in promoting and underpinning civil society and Scottish culture. We wish to acknowledge that we value this important contribution and much else in the current system.

3.6 Whilst preserving and maintaining the best of the past, including curriculum breadth, wide access to higher education and the tradition of the 'democratic intellect', we believe Scottish higher education must refocus to anticipate the new demands of the next century. Many of the building blocks are already in place to effect this change which will be largely delivered through the adaptation of existing structures and mechanisms. We do not, however, wish to underestimate the effect upon higher education providers of adopting the recommendations in both the National and Scottish Committees' reports and therefore suggest a gradual implementation of the changes outlined, to be put in place progressively over the next five years.

3.7 Our objective has been to see a high quality, higher education system in Scotland which meets the needs and aspirations of individuals, the economy, society and the academic community. The system will be responsible for delivering more, and more highly qualified, people to the highest possible levels of personal attainment through the framework of higher education qualifications available. Increased professionalism of staff through an accredited teaching qualification, and other recommendations for assuring quality and standards, will maintain UK higher education on a par with the best in the world.

3.8 Increased opportunities to collaborate and form partnerships, not only within the sector but also with industry and business, will provide opportunities to develop and exploit new knowledge. These partnerships will undoubtedly lead to greater cost-efficiencies.

3.9 We anticipate both that the traditional school-leaver entrants will be better qualified and that even more students will enter higher education through the further education route. Movement between institutions and courses will increase options and opportunities resulting in a wider choice of qualifications from which students can choose. Greater collaboration amongst providers will enable students undertaking study at one institution to select specialised modules that may be offered by other institutions. Information technology will facilitate communication within and between institutions and their students in new and positive ways. As all Scottish higher education institutions have signed up to the Scottish Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (SCOTCATS), it is our expectation that SCOTCATS credit points will become commonly accepted currency amongst institutions.

3.10 As the individual's expectations and experience of higher education becomes more fluid in terms of levels, modes, duration and content of study we envisage a new framework of higher education awards in Scotland. We believe that the traditional three-year ordinary or general degrees should be reinvigorated as new-style Bachelors degrees. These, we propose, should become more central to the common experience of higher education, being designed to meet the needs of students and employers over the next 20 years. We expect that many more students than at present will choose it as their initial target. Around this core we envisage a range of progressive and articulated qualifications ranging from certificates and diplomas to honours of an academic or vocational nature. Throughout all of these qualifications we expect to see the development of core skills and, where appropriate, experience of employment.

3.11 Thus, we envisage a system which values equally the pursuit of academic excellence and the acquisition of core skills for personal and economic development: an integrated and flexible network of vocational and academic opportunities, as opposed to a vertical ladder of advancement. In short, we propose the creation of a framework which will allow for movement between institutions and sectors and honourable exit points for the successful attainment of credit points at the end of each period of study, which for many students will no longer necessarily be experienced as now, at years one, two, three, four and beyond.

3.12 The research carried out by Scottish higher education institutions has an outstanding reputation in many areas. The maintenance of a dynamic and innovative research base established upon the principle of excellence is important to our continuing international competitiveness and national prosperity. To retain and expand our high quality research base, we believe that research funding should remain available on a selective and competitive basis. Greater opportunities should in future exist to encourage collaboration with a broad range of academic and industry-linked partners. The appointment of a Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland could assist in achieving these aims.

3.13 New structures and organisations will be required to work with institutions and enable them to carry forward the new and revised functions we are proposing in a coherent manner. In Scotland, we are recommending that there should be two separate funding councils, one each for further and higher education institutions. These two councils should have overlapping membership and should exist together under one single organisation and infrastructure. In addition, a Forum for Higher Education in Scotland should also be established to oversee all higher education provision, wherever it is delivered, as a single, coherent sector and to advise the Secretary of State or a devolved Scottish Parliament. This, we believe, will facilitate greater collaboration and improved articulation between a diverse range of institutions resulting in greater flexibility for students and more cost-effectiveness on the part of institutions.

3.14 We do not believe that pressure on public finances will ease, either in Scotland or in the UK, in the medium term. We believe that a compact will be formed between providers of higher education and the key stakeholders: the Government on behalf of the taxpayer, employers and graduates:

  • The Government will remain the primary source of funding for higher education and we expect this to continue. As its contribution, the Government should undertake to increase public spending on higher education having regard to growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
  • Higher education providers have a major part to play by delivering the recommendations contained in both reports and in securing greater value-for-money and cost-effectiveness. The proposed new funding council for higher education will have, as part of its remit, strengthened responsibilities in assisting institutions in achieving this aim through benchmarking their costs, activities and performance.
  • Employers will continue to support higher education through general taxation and particularly by encouraging and supporting their employees in lifelong learning.
  • The National Committee has concluded, and we agree, that a financial contribution from graduates in work to the higher education system is both justifiable and necessary. In considering the introduction of a contributory element, there is a need to ensure that the Scottish system is not disadvantaged by these recommendations and that their impact should not be detrimental to access and other distinctive aspects of Scottish higher education which we wish to see preserved.

3.15 In the coming years the demands and expectations of higher education, from all of its stakeholders, will be high. Fast-changing world economies, intensified competition, changing career and learning patterns, new technologies, social and cultural changes and the implementation of the National and Scottish Committees' proposals, lead us to conclude that the challenges facing governing bodies and managers of higher education institutions are very significant.

3.16 Institutions will need to respond imaginatively and flexibly in an increasingly dynamic world. We therefore also make recommendations on how institutional governance and management could be strengthened and improved. These reforms will ensure that we can realise our vision of a high quality Scottish higher education system comprising a diversity of institutions with clearly differentiated missions, which operate within a coherent, well-understood framework of qualifications with national standards, and which are able to respond creatively and confidently to the needs of the next century.