Questions for the economic minister: part two

Economist and researcher Margaret Cuthbert has been ploughing through Scottish Government reports to discover what the state of our economy really is. Here she imagines putting these questions to the new economic minister in a live interview.

In the second of two installments, they cover education, skills and employment. How can graduates be retained in Scotland? Why is the attainment gap so much wider in Scotland? And what progress has been made on income inequality?

Ministerial statements have been taken from government websites. 

Interviewer: Yes, I hope to get to that in a later interview. But at the moment, let us move on. Your Government has extolled the benefits of higher education. This might seem a kind of stupid question, but can you tell me, on the basis of up to date data from a sector that receives a lot of money from the Scottish budget, (£1.6 billion), what the returns are to Scottish graduates, to Scottish businesses, and to the Scottish economy from the higher education offered to students of Scottish domicile? In Scotland, is there a mismatch between what is offered in higher education, what job opportunities there are for young graduates in Scotland, and what is needed in the Scottish economy? Are we rather providing a higher education service to feed the needs of other economies, or, in some subject areas are we producing young graduates who had ambitions but are now in part-time low paid jobs with little future? The out of date data available suggest that about 51% of new graduates get a graduate type job in Scotland.

Minister: The Scottish Government wants to improve life chances for young people, support economic growth and increase the number of jobs. (from Scottish Government website). Our agency, the Scottish Funding Council, has put it succinctly. “Equipping the population with higher education is one of the important missions of the Scottish government”. Their key priorities are high-quality learning and teaching, world-leading research, greater innovation in the economy, and widening access

Interviewer: Fine aspirations, but where is the data that allows the sector to be monitored to ensure it meets these aspirations?

In a large country, such as the United States or France, by and large the population of students being educated at HEIs will remain in that country, with possibly short ventures overseas. There is therefore a return to the state from each of the above types of outcome. In a country such as Scotland, it is more difficult to capture some of the returns unless effort is made into encouraging employment opportunities in Scotland for graduates. I can see no aim in the SFC statements to prioritise higher education for the needs of Scottish health, Scottish society, or the Scottish economy. Nor is there any reference to the need to work with local industry to improve future employment chances in the Scottish labour market and to match research with the needs of Scottish industry and society.

Minister: Come, come, now. The Times top 200 list shows Scotland to have a total of five universities in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education world rankings and three in the top 100.  The University of Edinburgh is the top-ranked Scottish institution in 24th place. Glasgow has moved to its highest ranking of 76th place and St Andrews is ranked 86th. Aberdeen rose to 172nd place while Dundee re-entered the top 200 in 185th place. And remember these rankings were based on performance in a number of areas, including academic reputation, employer reputation, staff to student ratios, research citations and international students and faculty.

Interviewer: Yes; my question is twofold– first, where is the detail that shows that the Higher Education sector in Scotland is actually benefiting all Scottish young people to get into decent jobs in the labour market in Scotland; that it is benefiting applied research in Scotland, the growth of Scottish businesses, exports, and the overall performance of the Scottish economy? A large amount is spent on higher education in Scotland. Second, as reported in the Dundee Courier by Kieran Andrews, the Sutton Trust has just come out with its analysis of higher education throughout the UK. It finds that young people from Scotland’s most privileged areas are four times more likely to pursue higher education than those from the Scotland’s most deprived regions. The equivalent figure in England is 2.4 times, and in Wales and Northern Ireland they are three times more likely to do so.

University of St Andrews. Picture courtesy of stu smith

Interviewer: Thank you Minister. The next question we have from the audience is on skills training. The person wants to know about modern apprenticeships: can you give us some statistics on the scheme?

Minister: Skills Development Scotland has produced the following information: in terms of level of training, 36 per cent of participants were on apprenticeships leading to qualifications that were less than school highers level; 61 per cent were on courses leading to a the equivalent of a schools higher or HNC qualification; just over 2 per cent were on course for the equivalent of an Ordinary Degree or HND; and the remainder, less than 1 per cent, to an Honours degree. In total, less than 3 per cent were aiming for a post school level qualification. Hmm.

Interviewer:  Yes, and meanwhile there are concerns about the poor funding of further education in Scotland. In terms of length of course, the modern apprenticeship programmes are between one and four years long. Statistics are not provided by SDS on the average length by type of course. However, comparison of the numbers on courses compared with numbers of entrants suggests that the average participant is in a modern apprenticeship for approximately a year and a half.

Well, thank you Minister, I think that will give us all a lot to think about. Before you go, there is one issue that I myself would draw to your attention. There is a tremendous disparity between rich and poor in Scotland. Obviously, the high rates of unemployment in some parts of Scotland lead to disparity. But, in addition, you are probably well aware of the earnings data produced by the UK Government’s Office of National Statistics, and of the analysis of that data by the Paisley Daily Express. The paper shows, first, that the gap in earnings in Renfrewshire is widening; second, that “the poorest fifth of full-time workers take home less than £355 a week, while the richest pocket at least £787 a week, in 2015”. I too have examined the ONS figures in Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2015. They show that Clackmannanshire, Dumfries and Galloway, East Ayrshire, Moray, and South Ayrshire all have the lowest 20% of all their earners earning less than a third of the earnings of the top 20%. To be fair there has been an improvement for Scotland over the last four years, but the improvement has been miniscule. 

Minister: We are making the full use of the economic levers currently devolved to the Scottish Parliament, in order to improve Scotland's sustainable economic growth rate. However, many of the key job-creating powers - particularly in relation to taxation and key elements of economic policy - lie outwith the remit of the Scottish Government.

Interviewer: I am afraid that this all the time we have for this today, Minister. I hope you understand, Minister, that, on the basis of this data, (all produced by the Scottish Government, its agencies, and by the Office of National Statistics), many of us, I think, find our economy is far from strong and resilient. But our researcher wants to say something.

Researcher: I assure you, Minister, that researching this particular statistic on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June fairly lowered the spirits. This is not only because I genuinely believe in the importance of building a country that provides opportunity for all and looks after those who, for one reason or another, need help. I am far from alone in finding it unacceptable that whole areas in Scotland are and have been in the doldrums of real poverty with no way out other than moving out. But it is also because I can see no depth or worthwhile analysis of the above issues building that pyramid of serious hard work that should form the basis of policy. Instead, to the common punter, we just seem to have a multitude of the glossy papers, reports, speeches produced by the Scottish Government and its agencies somehow arriving at policy. 

Picture courtesy of Ken Teegardin

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.