Shaping Scotland’s place in the 21st century through higher education and the arts
I am very pleased to be invited to take part in the discussion here today. In these uncertain and complex times, this is an important conversation. We need to be clear about what we regard as important in society. What are the things that matter the most to us? And following on from that, what is the purpose of our institutions such as government and universities?
As Scottish Government, we have a simple purpose to create a more successful country, create sustainable and inclusive growth and increase opportunities and the wellbeing of people living in Scotland.
As for universities, there has been a growing tendency to define the purpose of higher education in narrow economic terms, such as graduates’ levels of earnings, as seen recently in the Augar review in England. I believe however that such narrative is reductionist and counter-productive and misses out so much of the value that higher education brings to individuals, communities and society.
It is therefore important that we identify and articulate other forms of value beyond simple economic value. For the creative industries and the arts, this can be done through the triple bottom line of social, cultural, and economic value.
In terms of social value, this refers to the value of strengthening human bonds and connections, place-making, and empowering people and communities through creativity and art.
In terms of cultural value, this means enabling individual expression, encouraging different perspectives, and recognition of tradition and the aesthetic response to the world around us.
This is not to say that economic value is not important - just that it cannot be the sole measure. The creative industries is one of the fastest growing sectors in Scotland. Figures out this month showed the sector grew by 11 percent compared to the previous year.
But we need to work with partners in the academic environment to help us to build public confidence in values that are not simply articulated in numbers.
I believe these different forms of value are integral to a society that is focused on the wellbeing and flourishing of its citizens – one in which the complex values that each of us celebrate on a daily basis are understood and reflected by government and its institutions. And the role of higher education, in particular specialist art institutions, in generating and understanding these different forms of value is crystal clear to me.
This is not least because of the large scale societal transformation we are currently going through - some call it the fourth industrial revolution. This transformation will rely upon the kind of creativity and imagination that is nurtured in these institutions.
Given developments such as the Augar review and the exclusion of arts and creative subjects from the English baccalaureate, or EBacc, south of the Border, I want to be very clear about what the Scottish Government places value upon.
We need imaginative, free thinking, pioneering young people who are not afraid to break the mould and who are not afraid to try even though they might not always succeed. We need holistic thinking, empathy and artistic sensibility, skills that cannot be automated. We need a strong and diverse cultural underpinning, as well as new forms of telling stories.
But there is a challenge here. And I think it comes back to the purpose of higher education. The drive for publications in prestigious journals, status in league tables and research excellence assessments can easily end up setting the agenda. Lab work and thesis may be the research of science, but art practice is the research of culture.
The world is changing fast and we need to make sure we are all adapting to these new realities. This will require increased flexibility and willingness to explore new models of practice, using our skills in teaching and learning to identify and amplify the motivations of emerging generations. It will require exploration of new types of partnerships and collaborations, in particular with industry, communities and the wider skills landscape.
David McKay, chief executive of the Royal Bank of Canada, Canada’s largest bank, has said rather than the use of the term ‘soft skills’ to refer to communications and liberal arts, these are ‘power skills’.
I believe this is a great opportunity now to think differently and find new ways of working together. So I put these three challenges to you, as leaders in the arts and higher education sectors:
- how do we build new partnerships and collaborations for these power skills between higher and further education, schools, industry and the wider skills system
- how can we ensure students are skilled and empowered in designing their own future rather than contributing to successful league tables of attainment
- how can we better understand the social, cultural and economic impact of the visionary and interpretative capacity of our creative graduates, beyond metrics such as salary levels 6 months after graduation
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