Professor Iain Gillespie reinforces the links between education and innovation

Writing for Thunderer today, Professor Iain Gillespie, Principal of the University of Dundee has set out his views on the links between education and innovation. This follows the publication of the Scottish Government’s Innovation Strategy and independent review of the skills landscape.

Last week the Scottish Government received two major reports that promise to shake-up the post-16 landscape for education and skills and accelerate Scotland’s progress towards becoming a leading innovation nation. The reviews were spearheaded by different people and were received by different Ministers within Government but there are several things that connect them.

Firstly, it is the role and relationships between university and business. This will be vital to achieving the bold ambition that Professor Sir Jim McDonald has to maximise Scotland’s innovative potential and that James Withers has for Scotland’s future skills needs. On the innovation front, the strengths of universities and business combine in innovative clusters which is key to Sir Jim’s vision. Universities are a strong feature in eight of the ten examples of high potential clusters in his report. Dundee University’s role in life sciences is one sitting amongst others including energy transition, cell therapies and high-tech diary processing. On the skills side, Withers is highly focused on the value that work-integrated learning, employability-related skills and highly transferrable, meta-skills brings to employers, now and into the future.

Universities are keen to get behind constructive change that will deliver more for learners, employers, for entrepreneurs, innovators and investors.

Both reports highlight how cluttered and confusing the current skills and innovation landscape is for all those who might seek to benefit. Whether it is skills or innovation, a common theme is the need for a more unified focus; to have all the relevant agencies and organisations join forces to work together, in support of the same goal.

If the goal is more cohesion, the Scottish Government must draw a number of short, sharp connecting lines between Sir Jim’s and James Withers’ reports. Education, entrepreneurship and innovation are all connected. Withers talks about the need to break down the “inherently problematic” false dichotomy between vocational and academic education. I agree. In doing so, we must make sure we don’t inadvertently create new and entirely artificial boundaries. An approach that looked to bundle all post-16 education and skills provision together under one banner, but inadvertently dislocated high-level skills from research, which feeds Scotland’s innovation landscape, might solve one problem but it would create a new one of colossal scale.

Another key connection that must be made is to use Scotland’s global role to our full advantage. Sir Jim’s report is very clear that Scotland must innovate and compete on the UK, European and world stages if it is to maximise the benefits here in Scotland. On the skills side, talent is highly mobile, in and out of Scotland. We need education and skills to work on a regional, national and global level.

As the Scottish Government considers both reports we urge Ministers to make the right connections between education and skills on one hand and research and innovation on the other and see to reinforce those links. The fact that both reports landed on Government desks just days apart is too significant to be ignored.