Getting Results: The New Social Contract

To mark a new report showcasing the role of Scottish universities in economic and social recovery, we’re publishing a series of blogs from Principals highlighting how higher education will deliver for Scotland over the next five years. Every day this week we’ll publish a blog from a Principal looking at a different area of contribution. The fourth blog in the series is written by Professor Todd Walker, Principal of the University of the Highlands and Islands, who talks about the role of education and skills in Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic. 

The latest edition of Skills Development Scotland’s COVID-19 Labour Market Insights indicates that Scotland’s economy is already being affected by the impact of the pandemic. While this will be a major challenge for many, it also represents a significant opportunity. As underemployment and unemployment increase, we often see people turn to their local university to reskill and upskill. Clearly, there is no other sector better placed to lead the post-pandemic recovery than the tertiary education sector.

Universities have existed for thousands of years in various forms. They are places to make sense of the world and to shape it. As such, it would be a mistake to see universities as static and unchanging. Indeed, during major economic upheaval, universities have remade and reformed themselves often responding to current circumstances. The uncertainty of the past year has been difficult on everyone particularly the impact it has had on our local communities, small business, services and manufacturing. What the future looks like will depend on how well universities, government and our communities work together in the post covid era to re-energise the economy of Scotland.

As the leading tertiary institution in the Highlands and Islands, we feel that we have a responsibility to engage with government and society to determine how best we can contribute to see our regional and local economies grow. The interface between universities, government and communities is what we call the new social contract. A contract where each of the parties feel a moral obligation to ensure we work collectively and drive the capability and capacity of our region ensuring ongoing sustainability post covid.

Emerging from the post-covid crisis, will require tertiary institutions like ours to ensure we produce job-ready graduates. To do this, work-integrated learning is key.  For example, our own award-winning aquaculture apprenticeships provide practical, ‘on-the-job’ training and skills development for aquaculture staff at all levels from new entrants to managers. More than 100 students across the UK are currently enrolled on aquaculture apprenticeships which we deliver from our campus in Shetland.

Having job-ready graduates is one part of the equation, the other part is having graduate-ready jobs: entry level jobs that can attract, employ and retain graduates. This is where communities and government need to lead in the new social contract.

From the traditional undergraduate degrees to short courses, from apprenticeships to microcredentials and postgraduate courses there is room for learning at any age and time. Our universities can meet almost every need: from new skills to upskilling to bespoke professional development. My own institution, the University of the Highlands and Islands, adds yet another dimension to this as we are in the fortunate position to be able to create seamless pathways from college to university, removing barriers for students of any age and background, allowing them to find their own unique learner journey.

The path out of the pandemic remains unclear, but what is known is that universities, and, indeed, tertiary institutions like ours, will be there to play their part in ensuring Scotland’s people are ready for whatever is on the journey ahead.