Neil Cowie, Donna Morrison, Fergus Mutch, Steve Olivier and Ivan McKee speaking at the SNP conference event

A Timetable for Change as RGU debates skills at SNP Conference

By William Hardie - 31 October 2023

RGU and North East Scotland College (NESCol) joined forces to host a joint event, A Timetable for Change: Education and Skills in Scotland at the SNP annual conference in Aberdeen on 16 October. The event discussed Scotland’s education and skills needs in the context of the Scottish Government’s plans to reform the post-16 education and skills landscape.

The event, which was attended by around 40 people, also provided an opportunity to discuss new ways in which RGU and NESCol are enhancing their strategic partnership in support of learner and regional needs. The event panellists were: Professor Steve Olivier, RGU Principal, Neil Cowie, NESCol Principal, Donna Morrison, current student midwife at RGU and recent NESCol student, and Ivan McKee MSP for Glasgow Provan. The event was chaired by Fergus Mutch, managing partner at PR firm True North, and former head of communications and research for the SNP.

Professor Olivier provided an overview of the Scottish Government’s reform programme, where during summer the Government published five major strategic reviews covering: the purpose of post-16 education and research; Scotland’s skills landscape; Innovation Strategy; Entrepreneurial Campus; and Qualifications and Assessment. Across these reviews, which were published almost concurrently, there are around 130 recommendations and actions, many of which are aimed at universities.  Professor Olivier referred to the importance that Government take account of different institutional missions and regional context in implementing the reforms. It is also notable that the reforms are being introduced against a backdrop of a 39% real terms reduction in teaching grant for universities, and a 43% decline in the Research Excellence Grant over the last decade, as calculated by Universities Scotland.

Neil Cowie reflected on the key contributions being made by NESCol. For the £32m of Scottish Government funding received annually, it is estimated NESCol is responsible for an economic impact of £400m. The College works with more than 1,200 employers, and is supporting regional innovation, including its focus on energy transition. He commented on the role that colleges play in helping those most disengaged from school to fulfil their potential. The real terms decline in public funding means, however, that colleges are being expected to deliver more-and-more for less-and-less, a position which is increasingly unsustainable.  He also reflected on the RGU-NESCol strategic partnership, which is one of the strongest university-college relationships in Scotland.


Donna Morrison reflected on her experience as an adult returner to education, first at NESCol and, more recently, having progressed on to RGU to study to become a midwife. Her decision to return to education was influenced by a desire to have a more fulfilling career, and support women through their pregnancy journey. Donna reflected that studying at NESCol enabled her to build her self-confidence, and to gain the qualifications she needed to join RGU’s Midwifery programme. The combination of theory and hands-on practical learning was attractive to Donna, as was the flexibility offered by online lectures.

Former Business Minister, Ivan McKee MSP, made the distinction between labour market shortages, and skills shortages. He highlighted the difficulty of being able to predict future economic and skills needs and aligning this with employer needs. He also commented on the important contribution that colleges in particular make to supporting those furthest away from the labour market. He reflected on the need for a balance between government direction on skills planning, and the decision-making autonomy of Scotland’s universities and colleges. He recognised universities’ strengths in engaging with business, particularly at a regional level, but he believes there is scope to do more.

The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) was identified as being a very valuable tool for helping provide for coherent education pathways, for transferability of qualifications, and for aligning learner and employer needs. The suggestion was made that building on both NESCol and RGU’s strong relationship with employers, there is scope to establish a regional forum for employers and education providers to enhance future skills planning.

The need to improve careers advice for school learners and their influencers, including families, was identified as a critical area of development, so that learners have a much better line of sight on future skills needs and key sectors of economic growth. Both NESCol and RGU work very closely with schools across the North East of Scotland to raise aspirations and support access to further and higher education, enabling learners to fulfil their latent talent.

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