The veterans community - employability, skills and learning

Third report from the Scottish Veterans Commissioner advising Scottish Ministers on improving employment and learning opportunities for veterans in Scotland.

Chapter 3 Further and Higher Education

The path from the military into further or higher education in Scotland - either directly or at some point after leaving the Services - is one that is rarely trodden. This is despite a number of incentives and the well-documented employment, social and health advantages that result from better academic, technical or professional qualifications. Very few Service Leavers see a spell at college or university as part of their transition process, and even fewer consider a return to education in later years. This is a missed opportunity - both for individuals, and for the country which is unlikely to benefit from their true potential over the long-term.


I have had many conversations with veterans during the past year - both young and old - and have been struck by the number who recognise that their lack of formal qualifications has restricted employment opportunities and their subsequent earning power since leaving the Armed Forces. For some it has been a question of needing to improve basic literacy and numeracy skills. Others acknowledge the need for better academic or technical qualifications to widen their job options, strengthen CVs or enhance future promotion prospects. A small number also recognise the benefit of attaining additional degrees, whether to make them eligible for senior posts or to follow an academic career.

The vast majority of these veterans never seriously considered the idea of further or higher education - and had rarely been encouraged to do so by those advising them during the transition process. Understandably, the universal priority after a career in the Services is securing another job with a steady income and the means to support oneself and family. The option of attending an intensive, and often lengthy, course at college or university was never seen as a realistic one, the assumption being that it would likely be too expensive, too challenging and inaccessible. The comment made by Derek summed up an attitude that is still far from unusual across this community.

I'm a scheme boy plus I'm dyslexic, I didn't think I was the type of person that could do it [attend university]. I'm so glad I believed in myself, and just need a chance in the workplace now to show just what I can do.

Derek Boyd, Early Service Leaver ( case study 1)

The Barriers

It became evident during my research for this report that many of these perceived obstacles are far from unique to the veterans community. Challenges of funding and access, meeting entrance standards, recognition of prior learning and experience, and anxieties about competing with much younger students are common amongst members of the general population looking to attend college or university in later life.

Considerable efforts are being applied at a national level - including the work of the Commission on Widening Access - to counter these barriers and provide greater educational opportunities for all. Given that the veterans community is an important and sizeable component of Scottish society with significant potential, I have focused my attention on current mainstream initiatives that could be expanded or adapted to reinforce opportunities for this group.

This chapter recommends changes that are intended to make it easier for veterans to access and succeed in further and higher education. In doing so, I believe that not only will this improve their circumstances and prospects, it will also help address skills gaps in vital sectors and make an increased contribution to our economy.

Further Education

There is no doubt that the structure of 26 colleges across 13 regions in Scotland should provide the most obvious and accessible means of learning for members of the veterans community seeking to enhance their academic, technical or professional qualifications. Based in the local community with strong links to businesses and other employers, colleges have a strong track-record of delivering skilled individuals for work. Crucially, one of their defining principles is that of "fair access, regardless of background and circumstances".

It is, therefore, disappointing that a relatively small number from the ex-Service community take advantage of the learning and training on offer. In most cases this is due to an economic decision based on the loss of earning potential while studying, although issues such as status, confidence and awareness also feature.

As a first step, I encourage Colleges Scotland and their members to consider ways of better engaging the veterans community in order to persuade more to consider a college education. This is needed to promote the learning and training opportunities available as well as the consequent employment benefits. The colleges themselves also stand to gain from having a mature, committed and reliable addition to their student population.

As part of this work, it will be important for Colleges Scotland to develop closer links with the Career Transition Partnership ( CTP) and employment charities. These organisations already provide advice and support to Service Leavers and veterans across a range of employment, education and training issues, and are, therefore, well placed to assist Colleges Scotland.

Recommendation 10 - Veterans Attending College

Colleges Scotland to work with their members to engage the veterans sector more closely in order to promote the benefits of, and opportunities to participate in, college education. Ultimately the outcome should be an increase in numbers from the veterans community taking up college places.

Modern Apprenticeships

In my previous report Transition in Scotland, I highlighted the benefits of Modern Apprenticeships, in particular for Early Services Leavers, and recommended that the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland ( SDS) should promote them more actively. I believe the programme remains highly relevant for the veterans community, especially as apprenticeships provide such an important means to generate income while studying towards an accredited qualification and improving job prospects.

Undertaking a Modern Apprenticeship will, of course, not be appropriate for all Service Leavers and veterans. However, for a significant number of those younger men and women who do not complete an apprenticeship in the military, and the slightly older veterans who need to up-skill or retrain, the programme offers many advantages.

In response to the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce (the 'Wood Report'), the Scottish Government has invested significant funding in expanding apprenticeship programmes over the past few years. In that time, I have become even more persuaded of the need for this type of training and support for veterans and re-iterate the recommendation made in my previous report. Given the important role of military spouses and partners, which I mention throughout this report, it follows that they should also be targeted as part of the efforts to promote Modern Apprenticeships.

Recommendation 11 - Modern Apprenticeships

The Scottish Government, Skills Development Scotland and Colleges Scotland should develop a plan to promote the Modern Apprenticeship programme to Early Service Leavers, veterans who would benefit from up-skilling or retraining, and spouses and partners.


As I mention in the introduction to this chapter, the major challenge facing veterans looking to attend college is the drop in income and consequential financial stresses on family life. One way to circumvent this problem is provided by employers that sponsor individuals to undertake part-time college studies in conjunction with their day-to-day employment. This undoubtedly demands substantial commitment and trust from both parties but my experience of meeting a number of participants suggests that Ex-Service personnel are particularly well-suited to, and benefit from, this sort of arrangement. I would like to see veterans offered more of these opportunities and look to the Scottish Government and employers to identify ways of achieving this objective.

Recommendation 12 - Sponsorship at College

The Scottish Government should work with employers to identify ways of supporting, and perhaps incentivising, sponsorship schemes that will allow a greater number of Service Leavers and veterans to undertake college studies in conjunction with full time employment.

Flexible learning options

Flexible learning options are an increasing feature of education in Scotland today and offer a major opportunity for those in the veterans community who want to study, and also have to juggle work and family commitments. Studying part-time, or via distance learning, has yet to be fully exploited by Service Leavers and veterans, especially by those who settle in more rural and remote areas. This is a topic which merits further discussion and I will engage with Colleges Scotland as part of the follow-up to this report in order to determine how we can help the veterans community take advantage of these possibilities.

Finding 2 - Flexible Learning

Flexible learning options offer a significant, yet under-utilised, opportunity for members of the veterans community. It is a subject that deserves further consideration and I look forward to engaging with Colleges Scotland, and others, over the coming months.

Higher Education

The Scottish Government established the Commission on Widening Access last year to consider how more students from disadvantaged backgrounds can succeed at university. In the course of their work, I met the Chair of the Commission, Dame Ruth Silver, to offer the veterans' perspective. We agreed that while the number affected by the issues raised in her study was relatively small, the challenges facing veterans keen to undertake university studies were often very similar to those of the wider population.

The Commission subsequently published its report, A Blueprint for Fairness, in March 2016, in which it made a number of recommendations. Those that resonated most strongly with me, given their relevance for veterans, concerned entry standards and the option of alternative paths into higher education.

Entry standards

The Commission's report stated that in many cases entry requirements to universities in Scotland have risen well beyond what is required to succeed in degree level study. It went on to recommend that by 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. The Commission was clearly seeking to ensure that talented young people who, for a variety of reasons, did not necessarily shine academically at school are given the opportunity to realise their full potential.

This issue is particularly pertinent for veterans who originally signed up to the Services with minimal or no formal academic qualifications. Time spent in the military can, though, be transformative in tapping into and developing inherent skills and talents. It can also awaken a fresh interest in learning, even for those whose school experience was less than positive.

I believe the Commission's ambition of widening universities' admissions policies is equally applicable to veterans who have the potential to succeed in Higher Education. All universities would benefit from attracting these individuals and, therefore, should consider adapting access thresholds to increase their opportunities. It will also be important to advertise and promote these changes amongst those who are currently serving, the veterans community and organisations that provide advice and support.

Recommendation 13 - Access Thresholds

In fulfilling the recommendations from the Commission on Widening Access, all universities should consider how access thresholds can be specifically applied to the veterans community. Subsequently, they should advertise and promote these thresholds widely across the military and veterans sectors.

From college to university - recognition of prior learning and articulation

The Commission on Widening Access also identified the expansion of 'articulation pathways' - progression from college to university where full credit is awarded for prior learning - as a powerful means of advancing fairer access to higher education. It went on to recommend that the Scottish Funding Council should seek more demanding targets from those universities that have not traditionally been significant players in this field.

As mentioned in the introduction to this report, I recently had the privilege of meeting a couple of veterans for whom the accelerated progression from college to university had been central to them fulfilling their potential. As seen amongst the wider population, a key feature of this journey was being able to use prior learning - gained in the military and at college - to start a university degree course at a later stage.

Clearly, being able to by-pass the early years of a degree course in this way reduces the significant living costs of attending university and permits earlier entry back into the jobs market. This has enormous implications for veterans who may be faced with major financial and family commitments. I look forward to the veterans community benefiting from the changes envisaged by the Commission.

Recommendation 14 - Articulation

The Scottish Funding Council, universities and colleges to specifically consider the veterans community as they embark on the expansion of articulation, as recommended by the Commission on Widening Access.

Graduate Apprenticeships

Another means by which a small number of the veterans community could access higher education is via the newly established Graduate Level Apprenticeships programme. Like its Modern Apprenticeships equivalent, it is designed to allow participants to work and earn a wage while studying for qualifications, this time at university and up to Masters degree level.

The programme is in its infancy and has an initial focus on ICT/Digital, Civil Engineering and Engineering, subjects that will be well suited to some veterans. I shall be keen to observe how it develops over the coming months and years, and shall retain an active interest in how it is promoted amongst the veterans community.

Next Phase

With an increase in demand for recruits with higher academic and technical qualifications, it is inevitable that many more of the next generation of veterans will be suited to university after they leave the military. As highlighted in the previous chapter, these individuals will also have benefited from extensive training and education opportunities while serving and are likely to see the greater employment opportunities that often result from a university education.

It was heartening, therefore, that the Commission recognised those leaving the Armed Forces as a group worthy of further consideration under the Widening Access agenda. I hope that my recommendations make a worthwhile contribution and help ensure that veterans feature in the next phase of this work.


Without doubt, it is worth re-iterating the point that issues of finance - especially living costs and the loss of earnings while studying - are by far the biggest concern for members of the veterans community considering further or higher education. I have already offered suggestions under sections on Sponsorship, Flexible Learning and Widening Access that may go some way to mitigating some of these worries, but there is no doubt that any decision to attend college or university will require considerable financial sacrifice and commitment.

In most cases tuition fees for individuals attending colleges and universities in Scotland are paid by the Government. There are also various bursaries and grants available to students, ranging from help with living costs to travel and childcare. Veterans may be able to take advantage of these, as well as the Enhanced Learning Credits 4 available through the MoD.

That said, the most immediate problem for the veterans community is the current lack of reliable, comprehensive and accessible information about the specific financial support available. Only with a full understanding of the support available can they make an informed decision that is almost certain to have life-changing consequences for themselves and their families. I, therefore, welcome the Scottish Funding Council's offer of co-ordinating the production of bespoke material for veterans.

Recommendation 15 - Information about Colleges and Universities

The Scottish Funding Council should work with relevant organisations - including Universities Scotland, Colleges Scotland and Student Awards Agency Scotland - to produce material designed specifically for the veterans community. This should include information about finance and the support available for those enrolling at college or university. Subsequently, this material should be made available widely amongst the serving and veterans communities, and those like CTP and SDS who support them.

Champions/Support Network

As I also covered in some detail in the first chapter, I am increasingly persuaded of the value of having a single point of contact, champion or active network of veterans in a range of organisations. This is equally applicable to the further and higher education sectors where I have already come across members of staff who offer vital mentoring and advice to Service Leavers and veterans. This was particularly evident at Glasgow Caledonian University and Perth College where formal and informal networks provide valuable support to the ex-Service communities. Given the benefits enjoyed by individuals, and the colleges and universities themselves, I would like to see these networks replicated more widely. I look forward to working with Colleges Scotland, Universities Scotland and Veterans Scotland to achieve this.

Recommendation 16 - Veterans Network/Champions in Colleges and Universities

Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland should work with their members and Veterans Scotland to establish a network of champions across all colleges and universities. The champions can provide the first point of contact for members of the ex-Service community applying for, or undertaking, further and higher education. They should also consider offering mentoring, advice on applications and funding, and be part of the wider champions network in Scotland.


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