Post-school education, research and skills: interim purpose and principles

A draft framework for building an excellent post-school education, research and skills ecosystem for further discussion and feedback.


We have developed an interim purpose and principles for post-school education, research and skills on the basis of feedback from previous research, reports and engagement. We believe that this must guide our decision making in the face of a challenging set of imperatives for reform. We are seeking views on this in order to publish a set of purpose and principles that reflect what we value and reach a clear position on where our collective future focus needs to be

We have published a discussion guide which organisations can use to support discussions on this work.


Responses are required by 24 March 2023 prior to publication of a final version of the purpose and principles in spring 2023.  

Read more in the following sections: 

Scotland's future - the context and case for change

Scotland’s post-school education, research and skills ecosystem sits at a crossroads. In Scotland, just as in much of the world, education is valued as a fundamental human right and public good, bringing benefits to society and individuals. Scotland’s National Performance Framework describes our vision for Education and ensuring we are all well-educated, skilled and able to contribute to society:

“We have an education system we can all take part in and which inspires us to reach our potential whatever that may be. We understand that the desire to learn continues throughout life and that being curious, creative, skilled and knowledgeable is good for us, our society and economy. We value our teachers, educators and academics and do all we can to achieve the highest standards across our learning and research. We work with partners in business, industry, science and academia to ensure we led the world in new thinking and have the talents and abilities to flourish in future.”

Drivers for change

In terms of educational outcomes, quality of research and globally recognised institutions – we have a strong story to tell. Yet we know that a confluence of social and economic factors are challenging traditional assumptions, structures and modes of delivery for skills, education and research. Several factors are placing growing pressures on education and skills to deliver and demonstrate better value and benefit for people, for the economy and for society.

These include:

  • globalisation
  • the need to transition to a fairer, greener world
  • the pace of discovery and technological advancement
  • the impact of the pandemic including the lessons of rapid response and scientific discovery
  • demographic changes and the changing expectations of students and of employers

We need the ability to provide more flexible opportunities for more people to access the right learning at the right time, to attract and retain talent, and to support our teaching and research base in their own right as well as in their role as international assets. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that people have the skills they need at critical points throughout their lives and that employers invest in the skilled employees they need to grow their businesses. This is all essential if we are to ensure that people have rewarding careers and to meet the demands of an ever-changing economy and society.         

It was those drivers for change that led us to commission the SFC Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability and that informed the resulting case for continued, evolutionary, whole-system change and a more integrated approach to education and skills planning. The Scottish Government’s response to the SFC review recognised that our post-school education, skills and research ecosystem would be facing into a future that is very different from today, requiring all of us to think differently about what we need and want it to deliver.

Indeed, even in the year since we published our response, the context for reform has materially changed. Brexit continues to have an impact on our economy, in particular in our labour market resulting in acute shortages across a number of critical sectors, including in health and social care. We continue to see the impact and effects of the pandemic, and Scotland and the rest of the world is facing into a period of substantial economic turmoil as a result of the impact of the pandemic coupled with Russia’s continued illegal invasion of the Ukraine. We are now witnessing the impact of the cost crisis on people, communities, businesses, institutions and the public sector across the country.

Responding to the context

The policy and delivery response across our country needs to be cross portfolio and cross sectoral; and to be truly transformative.  Scotland’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET), published in March of this year, seeks to respond to this context, and sets out an ambitious but delivery focused approach to transforming Scotland’s economy over the next ten years. This was further outlined in the SFC’s Strategic Plan 2022-27 and in that of Skills Development Scotland.

The Interim Purpose & Principles is therefore being published at a significant juncture. The social and economic challenges facing our people, our public services and our economy are far reaching. At the same time, the financial situation facing the Scottish Government is, by far, the most challenging since devolution. As set out in the Emergency Budget Review, the Scottish budget is at the absolute limit of affordability. Within this context the government's overriding priorities are to support public services, tackle child poverty, build a prosperous economy and achieve net zero by 2045.

In a post-school education, skills and research context that means, despite the financial sustainability of individual components or institutions, that much of the ecosystem as currently configured is no longer financially sustainable. We must now reimagine and reform our post-school, education, research and skills landscape, working alongside employers, institutions, learners and other partners, through the lens of the priorities set out above if it is to continue to deliver for Scotland as a whole. The imperative for far-reaching change is now acute.

This means that we must:

  • bear down on duplication of publicly funded provision wherever we see it, within and outside of government
  • further develop our approaches to skills planning through delivery of and learning from our regional and sectoral pathfinders
  • ensure that our governance and funding arrangements are transparent, robust and responsive
  • ensure that our policies and practice at home enable our international ambitions
  • incentivise and reward collaboration to reduce expenditure, reduce failure of demand and improve outcomes

Underneath each of the principles are a series of topics that have emerged during our early phases of engagement. These require further debate and reflection to consider how to ensure that public investment in post-school education, skills and research in Scotland minimises duplication, maximises delivery and impact and is financially sustainable and fit for the future. This next phase of engagement and discussion is about getting to the heart of what we value and reaching a clear position on where our collective future focus needs to be. This will be reflected in the final Purpose and Principles to be published in spring 2023, alongside evidence and insights papers and an implementation plan setting out next steps.

We also describe how we have engaged to date and outline our future approach to targeted engagement and user centred design during the remaining phases of this work.

Strengths of the current post-school, education, skills and research ecosystem

Post-school education, skills and research is at the centre of Scotland’s economy and society - ensuring personal success, health and satisfaction, and contributing to economic and social outcomes as well as delivering global benefits.

Supporting our society

It provides us with the skilled doctors, nurses, teachers, lecturers, support staff, early learning and childcare practitioners, entrepreneurs and innovators who helped us to survive the Covid pandemic and begin to build our recovery.

Furthering our economy

It provides us with the skilled trades, engineers and scientists who push forward our foundational and global economy and the artists, architects, musicians, media, graphic and video game designers who build Scotland’s creative presence. Our colleges, universities, independent training providers and community learning and development practitioners also make a significant and direct contribution to Scotland’s economy in their own right, providing employment and returns through exports and often playing a key role as civic anchors within their communities.

Aligning to employer needs

Our commitment to apprenticeships and work based learning has directly aligned skills to employers needs with 25,400 Modern, 4240 Foundation and 1,158 Graduate Apprenticeships in 2020-21. The Education and Skills Impact Framework, published on 2 December 2022 alongside contextual reports, shows that there are substantial positive returns both to the learner and to the exchequer related to an improvement in education and skills levels whether through higher education, further education or modern apprenticeships. The SFC Review reported that the return on investment in Scotland’s colleges and universities is between £6.50 and £11 for every £1 spent.

Playing a global role

It supports and drives the internationally respected, high quality discovery and mission oriented research that enabled Scotland to play its role in the global effort to develop a vaccine and will support our emerging space industry. The recent Research Excellence Framework exercise in 2021, the UK-wide method of assessing research quality in publicly funded universities, found there to be world-leading research in every Scottish university and almost 90% of our research impact was judged as outstanding or very considerable. This same research excellence, innovation and knowledge exchange will be needed to tackle the climate emergency and to effect Scotland’s transition to net zero. It is critical in attracting and retaining international investment and talent in to Scotland, ever more essential in our post Brexit context.

Fulfilling potential

It is also vital for the individual. Whether that is learning for personal fulfilment, to acquire or develop new skills and knowledge for career development, enhancement or professional accreditation or taking the first tentative steps to engage in formal learning to build confidence and capacity. Access to educational opportunities are part of the government’s efforts to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Even now, in response to the current cost crisis, as part of their role as community anchors, our colleges and universities are providing havens of warmth and food for students in poverty while community learning and development works with some of the most disadvantaged in our society.

Our ecosystem, including the investment made by employers in developing their workforce, delivers transformative opportunities that help people and businesses to grow and thrive – supporting delivery of the government's overriding priorities of supporting public services, tackling child poverty, building a prosperous economy and achieving net zero by 2045.

These are things that we all want to preserve and sustain for the future as we continue to adapt to ongoing change, challenge and uncertainty.

Challenges and emerging issues

Whilst recognising these strengths, the SFC in its review, and the Scottish Government in its response also identified a number of challenges. The work we have undertaken to date to engage around the development of the Purpose and Principles has deepened and broadened our understanding of those issues and challenges and key themes are emerging:

  • the need for a coherent overarching vision for the post-school education, research and skills system aligned to the social and economic needs of Scotland, now and in the future
  • the importance of a comprehensive ecosystem wide evidence base describing the current successes and challenges, the desired outcomes and metrics and indicators for change
  • confusion around overlapping roles and duplication of resources between and across government and agencies
  • a desire for greater strategic capacity and joined up thinking at all levels of government and agencies
  • the scope for further collaboration within and across institutions, to drive efficiency and best serve the needs of learners
  • the need for greater equality and equity of access, and of parity of esteem for different pathways
  • the need for greater focus on the requirements and expectations of learners for a fulfilling career, whether young people or later in life
  • the need for closer relationships between employers, government, agencies and institutions and a more nuanced conversation on skills and labour market interventions
  • the important role the post-school education, skills and research ecosystem can play in supporting the delivery of the skills required to respond to the economic opportunities outlined in NSET
  • the need for Scottish university research and knowledge exchange to remain competitive in a UK wide system with funding opportunities from, and strong relationships required with, UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), charities, industry and others



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