Scotland has a long tradition of educational excellence.

We have five universities ranked in the world top 200 – more per head of population than any other country – and we have successfully exported teaching and qualifications abroad.  

However, competitors in the rest of the developed world, and notably in the fast-growing emerging economies, are making rapid progress: 15 of the top 200 universities globally are now in the Far East.

Qualifications levels in competitor economies are increasing and a range of competitors, including South Korea, the United States, Canada and Australia, have significantly higher proportions of graduates contributing to their economic success. 

Commercialising the research undertaken by our universities and fostering a culture of entrepreneurship will be critical to Scotland’s future economic prosperity. We already punch well above our weight, but could we do better?

The expansion of higher education in my lifetime is welcomed – indeed I myself am a beneficiary, being the first in my family to go to university. 

Widening access to university on the basis of a learner’s ability matters because every individual should have the opportunity to realise their full educational potential and this encourages social mobility.

However, current attempts to broaden access, including free university tuition, are not enough. Indeed, Scotland is performing less well on attracting people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university than England, where tuition fees are charged. More clearly needs to be done, but what?

Our secondary education system, while still strong, is no longer world-leading. It is failing to keep up with demand for qualified and highly skilled workers, and this failure is a cause of growing inequality. 

Our delivery of education has not changed radically for years; some argue not since the 19th century. Doing what is already done a little better falls far short of what will be needed to meet the challenges out to 2050 and beyond. 

We need to equip our learners for the future. According to Reform Scotland, this will require a country to take a lead in starting the process of transformational change. Why shouldn’t that be Scotland?

For too long we have undervalued skills and vocational-based training, whether through further education colleges or workplace training and apprenticeships, and while this is now being addressed, the pace of skills training will need to accelerate.

Most recently, automation and artificial intelligence are replacing some lower-skilled blue collar roles, but in the years ahead it is likely these technologies will have an impact on a broader range of low-skilled work, including in the service sector, which to date has been largely unaffected. 

Eventually – and in the not too distant future – we will see robots flipping our burgers and our Uber’s will be driverless. If we are to keep up with the pace of technological change, lifelong learning will become increasingly important.

On average, employees currently change jobs 11 times during their working lives. This figure may grow as the pace of change intensifies and with it the need for people to adapt. If we need to encourage the over-50s back into the workplace to be re-trained and re-skilled, is education policy equipped for this, or is it too focused on young people?

Scotland is also tied to UK Government migration policy. If free movement between the EU and the UK ends post-Brexit (which, at the time of writing, appears highly likely) we will need to attract talent from the Commonwealth and emerging markets to study and work in the UK, and Scotland, with a shrinking population, will need to put forward a compelling case for migrants to study and stay here.

As part of Shepherd and Wedderburn’s 250th anniversary, we commissioned the Fraser of Allander Institute to undertake a research project to identify how Scotland might best position itself for the future. The initial scene-setter report can be found here.  

Looking ahead, how are you preparing for the future? How can you benefit from the experiences of others and what changes are needed if Scotland is to fulfil its potential on the world stage?  

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