Taking time to celebrate

John Kemp, interim chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council

Scotland has great universities and colleges. What we’re sometimes not so good at is publically celebrating their successes. So, when the Herald HE Awards started in 2015 I thought they were something that was long overdue.

The 2017 awards once again put the spotlight on amazing achievements in higher education in colleges and universities. It was great to see someone from outside the world of higher education describe the awards ceremony as “a brilliant evening” and say that it was “inspiring to see so many education institutions pushing boundaries and celebrating innovation.”

If your knowledge of colleges and universities goes back to the time of your own education it’s worth just glancing through the titles of the awards. It’s an excellent way to understand the priorities of today’s colleges and universities in Scotlad.

The ambition of colleges and universities to put students at the centre, for example, is reflected in the awards for enhancing student learning, student support team of the year and outstanding contribution from a student. Their commitment to involve industry and commerce in higher education is there in the two awards for employer engagement. The award for outstanding contributions to the local community shows colleges’ and universities’ determination to share the benefits of higher education with the people and businesses closest to them. There’s the global reach and world-leading status of Scottish higher education too with the award for research project of the year.

If you delve deeper and look at this year’s winners you’ll really start to appreciate the innovation, energy and talent within in Scottish higher education. As one of the judges for the 2017 awards I can tell you it’s sometimes agonisingly difficult to select the winners and it’s hard now to pick out a couple to give you a flavour of what was celebrated last week – but I’ll try.

I’ll start with West College Scotland’s employment engagement award which it won for its work with micro-living design company, Neat Living. The college’s Designers of Tomorrow students benefit hugely from the long-standing and hard-working relationship between the course leaders and the company. The project gives students the chance to use their skills on real-life projects and create their own concepts for modern living.  You can imagine the effect of this on their confidence and their attractiveness to the jobs market when they graduate.

The second example stands out because of how it affects two sets of students, because of what it says about the role of colleges and universities in wider society and because of the partnerships behind it. This year’s widening access award was won by Edinburgh Napier University for a project that involved students producing a film and a collection of photographs with young offenders at HMP and YOI Polmont. The latter came from Polmont’s learning centre which is led by Fife College. Behind the potentially life-changing outcomes for both groups of young people is the foresight, the imagination, the planning and the sheer hard work from everyone who put this together.

So that’s what’s worth celebrating and that’s why it’s worth remembering that Scotland’s colleges and universities are amongst the best in the world. The Scottish Funding Council undertakes to “care for and develop the whole system of colleges and universities and their connections and contribution to Scotland’s educational, social, cultural and economic life”. The Herald HE Awards help to remind us why it’s so important to do just that.