Margaret Cook: ‘it’s not all about school leavers’
Interview: Margaret Cook, principal and CEO, Perth College UHI
After a bit of shared clicking and sound checking we finally managed to make contact and admitted that even after a year and a half of Zoom calls there were some things that people of a certain age still find a little bewildering. “It’s times like this when I realise you can learn more from your students than they do from us,” joked Margaret Cook as she eventually came fully into view on the laptop.
Cook has spent enough years in the college sector to know that you’re never too old to believe you’ve mastered any subject and that there is always room to learn something new. Indeed, the demand for training from mature students is one of the things she wants to talk about.
The idea that higher education is all about fresh-faced innocents just out of school could not be further from the truth, says Cook, principal and chief executive of the 9,000-student Perth College UHI. The transition to a digitised, cleaner energy, virtual reality world has imposed a need, not only to train the new generation, but to re-train the older workforce.
“Look at the changes in the energy market,” she says. “We’re taking in gas engineers who need to think about the future of their work. We also teach automotive engineering currently around petrol and diesel engines. This is changing as needs change.’
That said, she admits that the take up of digital and computer-related training has not shown any significant uplift despite the accelerating pace of technology and the avalanche of government policy initiatives. She does have a theory and it relates to having clear career goals.
“It is about students seeing that there is something at the end of their studies,” says Cook. “If they don’t know what sort of jobs will be available how do they prepare themselves?”
It hits at the heart of a dilemma. Surveys regularly reveal that as many as eighty or ninety per cent of jobs that will be around at the end of the decade have not yet been invented. And many others will cease to exist. Yet colleges have to provide for this, as yet, undefined workforce.
‘Businesses want students who can hit the ground running. So, engaging with the business community is vitally important to us’
“I graduated in 1984 and the world is a very different place now, but this is about evolution not revolution and we have to work with all the professional bodies to ensure we all move in one direction,” she says.
This evolving spectrum has made it more important, says Cook, for colleges to work in tandem with employers at every stage; from discovering what they want in terms of filling occupations, to designing courses and sending teaching staff into the workplace to get a better understanding of how they operate and what sort of skills are required.
“We work very successfully with businesses who want students who can hit the ground running. So, engaging with the business community is vitally important to us,” she says.
Cook’s own journey through the educational establishment has not been in teaching but in human resources. She trained in what was then known as “personnel”, a term she prefers. “The one that really annoys me is human capital. Capital and human do not go together,” she says indignantly.
She had planned a career in the Navy, dabbled with accountancy – “I didn’t like it” – and switched her training to personnel.
Her progress was rapid and by the age of 26 she was HR director in a Local Authority. She held senior HR positions at Heriot-Watt University and Edinburgh Napier University before taking over at the helm of Perth College UHI in June 2017.
It offers an eclectic range of educational opportunities – from day release in plumbing right through to a PhD in mountain studies. It even owns its own helicopters – one previously operated by the SAS.
They add vital hands-on experience for the Aircraft Engineering students and the students in the college’s commercial subsidiary, Air Service Training. These students, both domestic and international have also built their own flight simulators.
It is the most southerly of the colleges affiliated to the University of the Highlands and Islands. The UHI, in fact, has few teaching staff of its own with the majority of the teaching being delivered by staff in the Academic Partners.
“It’s a complex organisation,” says Cook, with an enigmatic smile. “I think for those of us who work in the partnership, we would all agree, it’s not as seamless as it could be.” She adds, diplomatically: “We work closely with all our partners.”
The college’s broad curriculum is reflected in its alumni who include the chef Tom Kitchin and actors Tom Urie (River City) and Norman Bowman. Nor is the college just a seat of learning. It sits at the heart of the community. Locals can come in and have their nails or hair done, have a go at the climbing wall and have their lunch in the restaurant, all provided by the students.
This vocational training – learning directly for a job, often while in a job – brings us back to how the education and business community work together, not only on the new vocations but on immediate needs, including those that are an immediate consequence of recent events.
“We work closely with the hospitality sector which has been badly affected by the pandemic and Brexit,” says Cook. “We have close links with the likes of The Gleneagles Hotel and other establishments to understand their needs.”
During the pandemic there was a need to redesign the curriculum and teaching arrangements to allow more course time to move online, which also meant ensuring students had the equipment and skills they needed to operate remotely.
‘We have to be outward looking as well as looking after the community around us’
Cook says: “It worked well and gave students continuity in their studies, but there were issues with access to digital resources. Not everyone has laptops or even mobile phone or broadband and we bought huge quantities of digital devices to loan out to students.”
Teaching is now about two-thirds face-to-face and she believes that will probably remain the ratio for the foreseeable future. One of her current challenges is competing with the private sector to grow the college’s commercial arm by launching more online courses to the international market and furthering its international profile, particularly in Asia.
Its efforts have been rewarded with an International Achievement commendation for its service to international students from more than 50 countries. Partnerships with higher education Institutions exist in overseas markets such as China, Egypt, Finland, Iceland, India, Japan and Kuwait. A contract has just been signed with Brunei Ministry of Education.
“We have to be outward looking as well as looking after the community around us,” says Cook. “We also have to spread the message that learning is something valuable whatever course you take.
“Studying philosophy might not get you directly into a clear route of employment, but it gives you other skills. Some students lack personal skills, or confidence and learning helps them personally and how to work as a team. No education is ever lost.”
Occupation: Principal and Chief Executive, Perth College UHI
Education: University of Strathclyde (industrial relations); University of Stirling (MBA in public sector management); Edinburgh Napier University (Doctor of Business Administration)
Career highlights: Director of Human Resources (Heriot-Watt and Napier universities); chair of Glasgow Colleges’ regional board
Who has influenced your career?
One of my former principals at Napier, Professor Dame Joan Stringer. She had a good way of dealing with people and you came out of meetings with her feeling you had learned something.
What gets you frustrated?
Not being able to do the things I would do if we had the money. I also do not deal with trivia very well.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I am widowed and family is important to me. I have four grandchildren.
For relaxation I sing in a rock choir.
If you could invite three people to a fantasy dinner party who would you choose?
My late husband, Sean Connery and David Bowie.