It is a real pleasure to be invited to the greatest annual event in the College’s calendar, graduation day – indeed Glasgow Clyde College’s very first annual Graduation & Awards Ceremony. Although my work as a Government Minister and law officer means, mainly, tackling difficult policy or legal issues, one aspect of my job in politics, which I have very much cherished over the years, is the opportunity to share in days like this – particularly where success and achievement are being recognised.
Having visited the College back in May, and seen at first hand, much of the hard work being done here, I counted it a particular privilege when I received the invitation to share this special occasion with you, on what is a day of celebration.
I know this is a proud day for everyone here – not just the graduands, but parents and partners, families and friends – some of you even have bosses who’ve come to enjoy your day. These are the people who have supported you in your journey to this day, and can rightly share some of your pride. I hope you have a chance to celebrate together after the ceremony.
Because, a bit of ceremony does not go amiss sometimes. We need to mark these stages in the journey, stop for a moment to reflect on our achievements, and thank those who have helped us on the way. I know it has not it cannot always have been an easy journey for you to get this far – sacrifices have been made. You have chosen to study and learn, at times when you could have been earning money; or out with your friends, or simply relaxing. What you have done in the years leading up to this day is making an investment – you have invested your time in your own personal development, in the hope that there would be a return on your investment.
As the Principal said in her introduction, I am a minister in the UK Government, a law officer, with the rather grand sounding title “HM Advocate General for Scotland”, a post I have held for over four years. However, my connection with Scotland’s colleges goes back to the time, before 2005, when I was a minister in the Scottish Government., as “Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning”. My ministerial responsibilities included Further and Higher Education. “Lifelong Learning” was a deliberate and significant phrase. Our policy document was entitled ‘Learning Through Life; Life Through Learning’ It was a statement of intent by the then coalition government of which I was a member, to emphasise that we were entering a world where education and training had to become a continuous part of our working lives. The world where you trained for a job or trade and then worked at it for the rest of your life had gone. Many of the things which were new at the end of the twentieth century – at the start of the digital age – are already at the end of their sell-by dates. If you had trained, for example, in coding for a computer language at that time, you would be learning a new one now. In fact you may have re-trained several times in the last fourteen years.
The scale of the challenge came home to me recently, when I came across a comment from a Professor at Duke University in North Carolina, Cathy Davidson, who, in 2011, wrote:
“By one estimate, 65 percent of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet.”
We cannot predict the future but we know that it will be unpredictable. To meet the challenge of that uncertainty a student must remain, in part, a student, for the rest of his or her life.
The main thing you have learned in gaining your qualification today is the capacity for learning. Your certificate should be a reminder to you – perhaps framed on your wall, or in that photo of you on graduation day – that at any time from now on you can apply yourself to learning anything you need to learn with a reasonable expectation of success. It is also a message to employers that you have that capacity, and the self-discipline to make that decision to invest time in study and education. Your future employer – and that employer may even be yourself – knows that the skills required to drive the economy will be constantly changing and the key skill is adaptability and the capacity to learn.
Colleges such as Glasgow Clyde are a vital part of the “lifelong learning” strategy. Lifelong learning means that places of learning must encourage students of all ages, including those who have unhappy memories of school, or whose journey was slowed by ill health or family circumstances. But if I can express a regret about developments in recent years it is that the reducing numbers appear to have impacted particularly hard on groups such as older people, women returners and people with additional needs.
Nevertheless we can prize places of learning which are rooted in their own cities and are closely linked to the enterprises and businesses which make that city thrive. You are about to be proud graduates of Glasgow Clyde College, and you have every reason to take pride, for the rest of your life, in the place which gave you this opportunity.
But the education which you now carry proudly with you, brings with it responsibilities as well as opportunities.
I mentioned earlier that I visited the College earlier this year, and for me, one of the memorable features of the visit was to sit down and talk to a number of students not only about the referendum debate but also a range of topical issues.
This isn’t the time or place to dwell on the referendum debate or its outcome; but one thing on which everyone seems to agree (and which I experienced for myself, both here and on other engagements I undertook over the summer) is that people and politics were energised by the debate.
We have just taken part in one of the most extraordinary political events of our lives, indeed in Scottish history, in which the level of political engagement was unprecedented. Nearly everyone was involved in the debate over the last two or three years, and the vast majority of us chose, to exercise our democratic right and carry out our civic duty, and vote. I expect and hope that most of you were energised by that process and I would urge you to remain engaged in political debate whether you celebrated the result, or were disappointed.
I know it is fashionable to knock politicians, and if any of us became active in politics because we wanted to be loved, we were sadly mistaken. Fair enough. We make political decisions and judgments and these will be scrutinised and criticised. I would, however, urge you not to become cynical. Don’t be seduced by wit and charm of people like Russell Brand, who would urge you not even to vote at elections. Mr Brand wrote last year that he thought there was nothing to vote for, and that it was “…a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box.”
That is insulting to all of you who voted on September 18, whatever choice you made in that vote. Surely both sides in that debate can agree that it was not “trivial” or “tokenistic”, and certainly not “obedient”. You did not just “cross a little box”. You made, as both sides in the campaign said, one of the most important decisions of your life.
I say you should use your vote, or ask yourself who benefits if you do not. None of us get the government we voted for. For it is a feature of dictatorship that one person gets the government he wants – but it is a characteristic of democracy that we make a compromise with our fellow voters.
That compromise should not discourage us from carrying out our civic duties.
But the referendum debate over the last three years, stimulating and important though it has been, has been about the constitution, and not directly about the real issues which affect our daily lives. You may have noticed that those involved in politics have a weakness for constitutional debate – I’d hesitate to single out one party among them all – perhaps because it involves talking about ourselves rather than the policies which impact upon our daily lives. But if we spend too much energy on the process of government rather than the things that government can and must do, then we are diverted from the real job at hand.
The condition of Scotland’s colleges and schools, its hospitals and its justice system – these are matters that, arguably, have taken the back seat during the last three years. These are all in the devolved issues, the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament and Government, and we can’t blame our fellow citizens in the rest of the UK if they are neglected.
This week, the Scottish Funding Council published statistics which showed that only 3.9 per cent of pupils in Scotland’s most deprived communities managed to get three A grades in their Higher exams compared to 24.2 per cent in the wealthiest places.
Children living in the poorest areas were only half as likely as the national average to get three Highers.
Figures also show that the number of college students in Scotland has declined by 140,000 in the last seven years.
Whatever side you were on in the referendum and whatever political party you support or none, these are surely both challenging and disturbing figures. And whilst it is right that the issue of more powers for the Scottish Parliament is discussed and commitments honoured, I would argue that there is plenty to discuss and debate about how the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament are used to address the social inequalities and missed life chances which these statistics represent.
And on your educational journey, you will have seen how government policies and spending decisions directly affect you and your family. Any government has difficult spending decisions to make – the public purse is not bottomless – but you are in position to see where funds have been spent and where that spending has come from. And with that experience you may wish to consider whether you wish to engage further in political decision-making; but at the very least, I would urge you to continue to show the level of interest shown by Scotland’s young citizens during the referendum and when elections come, weigh up how the respective parties propose to tackle the issues
As I mentioned earlier, I got to know colleges like this one about 11 years ago when I was a Minister in the first devolved Scottish Government. Much has changed since then – and we have seen changes such as the amalgamation of colleges to form Glasgow Clyde College. One constant during this period, one thing which has not changed, is the commitment shown by the teaching staff here. That dedication to high standards, to taking people of a wide age range, and a variety of abilities, to a day like this, is something to be admired. By all means, take time today to reflect on your own achievements and celebrate in the traditional manner, but please also think about the people who taught you here and helped make this day happen for you.
Your success was contributed to by their labour. And, through you and your achievements to come, the staff here makes their contribution to Scotland’s future. The Scotland which you, and they, are building.
And whatever changes there have been, days like today are a powerful reminder of the kind of Scotland in which our colleges have a key role in building:
A Scotland where -
• People have the confidence, enterprise, creativity and skill to play a full part in the economic, social and civic life of our nation;
• Where people demand, and colleges deliver, a high quality learning experience;
• Where your knowledge and skills are recognised, are rewarded, and developed to best effect by employers in the workplace;
• Where you have the information, guidance and support you need to make effective learning decisions and transitions;
• Where people have the chance to learn, irrespective of their background or current personal circumstances.
It is evident from events like today that Glasgow Clyde College is playing its part. So once again can I congratulate the College, the Principal and staff, the Board of Management, whose members contribute so willingly of their time and expertise, and particularly those of you who are about to graduate. Wherever your life and learning journey takes you in the future, I wish you every success and personal fulfilment.