23rd February 2018
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What are we going to do with education in Shetland? And the last thing I am here to discuss is either closing or keeping open schools. That debate is entirely sterile, unless we can figure out what we want out of the whole conundrum.

This is something nobody much seems to be attempting, and it is time we did. We have more young, educated, people in Shetland than ever before, and from what I see of them, they are, overall, excellent.

I am more aware, I hope, than most of sloppy use of language. At least, I feel, I care more than most people; and there is some evidence for that. I hate it when anybody says, for instance, “The electorate isn’t stupid!”

What? What? The electorate consists of everybody we know. As a body, it consists of a mixture of brilliant, stupid and most of us, somewhere on a spectrum in between.

Yet I am still going to stick with my statement: “They are, overall, excellent.” I interact quite a lot with young folk, here and elsewhere, and I really think that. There is no evidence of moral decay, societal collapse, or any of that Daily Mail stuff. Most of the young people I have dealings with are more direct, more thoughtful and all round better than ever our generation were.

But, but. This country, whether we are going to call it the UK, or Scotland, does not seem to want them. It looks like only two thirds of qualified applicants are going to university this year. It also looks like a very high proportion of the excellent graduates who have come out this year, last year, and maybe for years to come, are not going to be able to find their way into work where their invaluable skills could actually help build a better society. They are going to be unemployed, or under-employed.

As far as the whole of the country is concerned, I think it would be a waste of breath trying to argue for urgent action in this absolute crisis. We have a government which thinks cutting public spending is the road to Nirvana, and that once it is done, the new world with productive industry and, well, I am not sure “and” what, will appear, all shiny, and it will be fine.

Here in Shetland, though, we do not have to adopt such a belief system. As with quite a few things, we can take action to build a society of which we can be proud. We have problems at the moment, financial problems which mostly seem to be due to misapplication of resources. We have spent too much money on feather beds, and too little on creation of opportunity.

That does not have to be a permanent state of affairs. We can stabilise our finances, and when Viking Energy comes on stream, we will have a future boost, which should be grown further through the private sector renewables development which will grow from the availability of a cable to the UK mainland. Prospects are very good.

We need to plan, therefore, on how to make the best of the opportunities created. I suggest that the first thing to do if you are making a plan is to consider what you want to achieve, and then measure everything you do according to how far it helps you to pull it off. You have to have good processes, but far too often an obsession with these becomes an end in itself. Outcome should dictate process, not the other way around.

What we want to achieve is a community which is well fitted to live in the harder wide world which is coming. There does not really seem much likelihood that the UK or Scotland will change and come ahead. Much more likely that, when the great North Sea Oil bonus ends, the long decline from 1913 will recommence; if it has not already done so.

What we need to hope is that that does not necessarily mean us. I say necessarily advisedly, as the current trajectory has a high level of risk. We could well be dragged down with the rest.

But we don’t have to. We can plan, and we can take steps. That option exists for us. We can move away from the provision of feather bedding, and incentivise striving. How about that?

Today, I am going to suggest one small, or not so small, step we could take. We have, as pointed out earlier, a colossal asset in our educated young. We have a graduate employment programme. But instead of being beefed up every year since it began, this visionary programme has been cut and trimmed. Let us head it in the opposite direction, and let us use more imagination in what we inspire the young people chosen for it to do. And let us drive it more into the private sector, where we make it a priority to help people with good ideas for a clever graduate, afford one.

As a strong adjunct to this, let us consider what resources we can put into higher education in Shetland. Nationally, the story is a tragic one, retrenchment and exclusion. Why can’t we do something about it?

We could set up a post graduate institute in Shetland, and work for it to develop a world wide reputation. It could focus on the development of business and entrepreneurial skills. It should be very ambitious, and it should support the young people who won entrance, come they from anywhere in the world, on the basis that they owed us something too.

We could call it the North Atlantic Business School. We could start it up quickly, and as things stand at the moment, it would just require some re-allocation of resources, rather than new resources. Come on, let’s make life more exciting, more hopeful, more confident! Let’s see if we can reclaim the reputation we used to have for forward looking and boldness!

Drew Ratter

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