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Scottish Parliament Speech: Colleges (Economic Recovery) (October 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I am glad to speak in this debate on the contribution of Scotland's colleges to the economic recovery that we so badly need. My Mid Scotland and Fife region contains two universities and several colleges. Adam Smith College, in Kirkcaldy, is Scotland's third largest college; it supplies teaching in technical subjects that are simply not available at St Andrews or Stirling universities and, as such, I believe that it ranks higher than an ordinary local facility.

Scotland has nearly half a million enrolments in 43 colleges, which are subject to record funding by the Scottish Government even at a time of recession. I started my career in the further education system, teaching liberal studies to Post Office messenger boys; some members may remember the little red demons on motorcycles running around the place with telegrams. That was the Everest of teaching: if one could get them to remain silent and unfidgety for an hour, one was doing very well indeed.

In fact, those boys were marvellous: they were positive and responded very well. Of course, one soon realised why - they were the youngsters who carried the telegrams. At that time, the arrival of a telegram at a Scottish house usually meant only one of two things - a death or serious illness - so those kids had naturally to be sympathetic.

It is, therefore, important to consider the sort of people who go into the colleges and to remember that they cannot be easily categorised. Many of them bear considerable gifts of social and technical adaptation before they even go through the doors. One person who recognised that - as is evident from her memoirs - was Jennie Lee. I think of her at this particular moment, because 40 years ago I was proceeding by bus from teaching the Post Office messenger boys to Walton Hall in Buckinghamshire to set up the Open University. The OU had a very strong Scottish element behind it, which came from Jennie Lee herself and from Walter Perry, our first vice-chancellor.

I make a plea today for using some of the facilities that the Open University developed, because they have come a long way from 1969, when we appeared on black-and-white television wearing kipper ties. Technology such as high-definition television allows virtual laboratory work to be carried out in one country while students from another country participate in it.

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I am - in fact, I have used a similar system to communicate between Tübingen University and Aberystwyth University in teaching political science. The technology can also be applied to participating in, controlling and learning through experiments, because the degree of precision is so great. It is an area that should be orientated towards the colleges rather than the humanistic universities. In an ordinary university, thanks to OU principles, the students can to a great extent be left to get on with much of their own learning - they can learn how to participate in groups and so on - but in a college system students are very dependent on the nature of the industry around the college.

On the continent, in France and Germany, a student in a major area of industrial development will spend as much as 75 per cent of their time in workshops or in learning facilities that are associated with private industry. We have a problem after a period of deindustrialisation - we have to make up for that. That is why those new and probably fairly reasonably priced forms of instruction will be important in the near future.

A further point is the importance of language teaching. That is not usually associated with the colleges, but they do a lot of work in it, including a lot of unrecognised work. We have to realise that it is no longer a question of saying, "We all speak English. Shout loud enough and they'll understand." In various central areas, we need to adapt to the fact that the language of command might well be German or Chinese because the developments have been carried out in Germany or China.

We need to do two things. First, we need to bring colleges up to date with the interchangeability of languages and the fact that it is important for our people to learn languages. Secondly, we need to realise that we have a large and often extremely talented migration into Scotland of people, largely from eastern Europe, who are very well qualified but who run into language and adaptivity barriers when they get here. We will need those people, particularly when we consider the future of areas such as renewable energy, because we will have to make up rapidly for the deficit of trained people in those areas. The colleges are in the front line of that work. I commend them for what they have done, and I look forward to even greater progress in the future.

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