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With Scotland’s ageing population and stagnating economy we need far more focus in our politics on our skills strategy, if we are to boost productivity and provide the growth of the future. Without that, we will struggle to fund good public services.

Indeed, the sluggish growth under the SNP’s watch is one of the factors behind their swingeing cuts, particularly in local services.

But far too often, when we talk about skills and education we concentrate on young people’s access to university or see the issue in terms of ensuring adults have the basic skills they need. And there is clearly more that we need to do to ensure that Scottish young people can get access to university if they have the ability and choose to go there.

In 2020, it was found that just over half of Scottish based applications to Scottish universities won a place, whereas almost three quarters of applications from students based in England were granted one. This is a direct consequence of the SNP Government’s funding model, which provides universities with a strong financial incentive to prioritise students who don’t live in Scotland.

But the barriers to access go much wider than universities.

The SNP Government’s own adult leaning strategy found that over 300,000 Scottish adults have low or no qualifications and almost 2 million Scottish adults have low numeracy skills.

However, thinking of skills purely in the terms of university education or in ensuring the provision of basic adult learning is an increasingly redundant approach that will not deliver the workforce our economy needs.

Our education system is still built around the outdated notion that a university degree is the universal golden ticket to success in the modern Scottish economy. That is what pupils are told in schools and where public money goes.

For every £1 the Scottish Government spends on skills and training, £10 is spent on supporting higher education institutes and the students who study there. And government funding per college student was more than a quarter lower than support for an average university student.

Inevitably it is the wealthy who benefit most from this focus on university education.

The most deprived Scottish school leavers are seven times more likely to go into training, two and a half times as likely to go to college, 25% more likely to go into a job or apprenticeship and half as likely to go to university as the least deprived school leavers. The SNP Government, which said that closing the attainment gap was its first priority, has instead left it yawning as wide as ever.

Yet for all this focus on university education we do not have the skills our economy needs. A Scottish Government survey found that over a fifth of all job vacancies in Scotland were related to skills shortages. Also, the Institute of Directors found that 44% of business leaders do not believe that they have a workforce with the right skills and a similar number do not believe that they will be able to recruit the right people to fill vacancies.

With an ageing Scottish population, we need to be much smarter about how and where we invest public money to get the workforce Scottish employers need.

We need to look at the over-emphasis on university degrees that exists in our current education system and encourage more young people to take alternative approaches to what is essentially four years of study with no guarantee of good employment at the end.

As someone who never went to university, I can confidently say that there are other routes to success.

Delivering the skills, we need starts by establishing parity of esteem. There is a reason that almost two thirds of young people from the most affluent backgrounds go on to university.

We need to remove the stigma that surrounds colleges and apprenticeships and instead promote and celebrate the life chances they can offer.

As Scottish Conservative Leader, I have been privileged to see exciting apprenticeship opportunities up and down the country – from defence to renewables energy to financial services.

The more we can work with attractive employers to create exciting opportunities, the more we can encourage Scots into apprenticeships.

However, the SNP have repeatedly missed their 30,000 modern apprenticeship target. They managed just over 25,000 in 2021/22 and are on track to fall short again in the last financial year.

So the Scottish Conservatives would reverse the current funding structure for apprenticeships from one where funded places are set by the government to one where the employers decide how many good apprenticeships they need, which the government then delivers support for. This would create potentially unlimited apprenticeship opportunities for Scotland’s young people.

But ultimately the prestige will follow the funding.

Scotland has world class universities, yet the current model means that they are being increasingly shut off from Scottish students. That is why the Scottish Conservatives are committed to working with the sector to reduce the length of degrees, where appropriate, from four to three years. This would reflect the reality that fewer Scots each year leave school in S5, would create more places for Scots and get students into the workforce a year earlier.

But it would also allow us to invest more in alternatives. Since 2007, the number of college students has fallen by over 140,000 – and just at the start of this month, the SNP cut £46 million from college and university funding.

An underfunded college system, starved of the cash that it needs, is hardly an attractive choice for our best and brightest young people. If we believe in equality of opportunity, then why is it that vocational courses through college receive less government support than academic courses through university?

If we want to deliver parity of esteem between vocational and academic education then over time we need to move towards parity of funding and if we want more young people to enter the workforce with the skills our economy needs then we need to give employers more involvement in their education.

Yet we cannot just change course for the next generation. We must also look at upskilling Scotland’s workforce today. Because we need a step change in how we approach adult skills, and to end the attitude that the end of school, or even college or university, is the end of learning. More and more of us will have multiple careers throughout our lives.

One of the biggest barriers to adult learning is access. That is why the Scottish Conservatives would set up a National College for Scotland which would work with all of Scotland’s higher and further education institutes to deliver high quality remote courses and learning. That means that wherever you live or whenever you can learn you have access to educational materials that you need.

Yet, as I said, the biggest barrier is our national mindset. We need to create an incentive for more people to think about the need for continuous upskilling. That is why we believe in offering every Scottish adult who is not already in funded education or training, access to use-it-or-lose-it skills funding through a Right to Retrain.

Taken together this would provoke an essential shift in encouraging more adults across Scotland to update and upgrade the skills and qualifications they can offer so that employers have access to the workforce they need.

The SNP argue for greater powers over immigration as a way to deal with the labour shortages many employers face. Yet Scotland already doesn’t attract its share of current migration to the UK. Even among those who do come north of the border, the lion’s share go to Edinburgh and Glasgow, not the Highland and Islands where they are greatly needed.

While immigration has its part to play, it is far too often used by the SNP Government as an easy answer to avoid a more difficult discussion about how the Scottish workforce does not have the skills that Scottish businesses and our economy needs and what they are going to do about it.

But it is a national debate that we need to have because if we don’t then productivity and our economy will continue to stagnate, and we will continue to lag behind our international competitors. Then it simply becomes a matter of time before Scotland is no longer an attractive place even for hardworking migrant workers to come to. And the SNP’s policy of making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK has the potential to render living and working here even less appealing.

Our demographics require a sizeable influx of skilled workers just to avoid decaying public services. But we should want to go further, and to make Scotland an engine for productivity and growth.

Scotland needs a skills revolution to drive the economic growth of the future and the Scottish Conservatives have the ideas and vision to deliver it.

Douglas Ross MP MSP is the Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Adam Wilson]