Reform was top of the agenda at the Scotland’s Colleges conference
Amidst the many voices at the Holyrood Scotland’s Colleges conference this month, one message came through loud and clear: maintaining the status quo is no longer an option.
Colleges were commended all round for the vital service they provide to learners and communities across Scotland – and for maintaining that service in the face of a 10 per cent cut to their budgets this year. But that praise came with a caveat. Colleges are not immune to the economic, social and educational changes sweeping the world, delegates heard. To continue to serve the needs of learners, the way they operate will need to adjust.
Chief proponent of this message was new Minister for Learning and Skills, Alasdair Allan.
“Most of what I will say will be about college reform,” Allan told the room of over 150 sector representatives in Edinburgh.
“Not a description of what reform will look like, but rather a clear indication of why, in our view, reform must be at the top of the agenda.”
In his first address to the colleges sector since being appointed, the Allan certainly made an impression. The newcomer was keen to show that he understood and respected the value of the sector to Scotland. He paid respect to the “thousands of years of collective experience” in the hall “in delivering learning opportunities to those who need them most”. “As your minister, I recognise and value that hugely valuable resource,” he added. But even in this debut, Allan was not afraid to spell out his vision for the sector. And against the current economic backdrop, that involves new ways of working to deliver maximum efficiency.
“Like every other area in these very difficult economic times, colleges are having to reposition themselves, in some cases, dramatically so, and having to look at how they can make significant efficiencies,” he said, acknowledging the difficult decisions institutions are facing.
The need to do the same with less should now be “self-evident”, Allan added. He pointed to two “beacons” exemplifying this approach: the merger of three colleges last year to create City of Glasgow College and the recent moves towards merger by Stevenson College Edinburgh and Jewel & Esk College. And with that he issued a subtle warning: “This is an area of activity in which ministers will have no option but to take a much closer interest.”
“Past administrations have allowed huge latitude to colleges on their approach to merger, consistent with the economic circumstances of the time. However, we might need to seriously question whether the same latitude is quite so affordable in current circumstances, particularly if it leaves open the possibility that we might not always be identifying and pursuing opportunities for rationalisation as stridently as we must,” he asserted.
Allan’s comments come amidst a growing momentum for public service reform in Scotland. The Christie Commission – tasked with reviewing the future delivery of public services – is due to report this week, while a review of vocational education by Willy Roe is set to publish imminently. Meanwhile, in the run-up to the election, Education Secretary Michael Russell pledged reform of the college sector to – amongst other aims – “avoid wasteful duplication and overlap”.
The merger theme was also picked up by Scottish Funding Council Chair John McClelland CBE. Speaking for the body that distributes public money to colleges, he advocated a “regional agenda” for further education in Scotland, where there are fewer colleges than the current 41, but no fewer locations.
“From our point of view, and certainly my own, I would say: ‘Yes, we do have too many colleges’. Do we have too many locations? I would say: ‘No, we don’t have too many locations’. And I do believe that, like many other business and social activities, the importance of location is absolutely paramount,” McClelland said.
Forming regional mergers and federations with other colleges and universities offers institutions “immeasurable clout”, he added, and a better opportunity to engage with local employers and councils.
“I’m really pleased to know – although I would like to see an acceleration – that there are more than 30 colleges – 75 per cent – that have or are considering mergers, federations or very close collaborations,” he said.
But the new economic reality is not the only change engulfing the education sector. Delegates heard from Skills Development Scotland Chief Executive Damien Yeates about the societal trends that 21st century Scottish education needs to respond to.
“In effect, the global financial crisis has only accelerated what was coming upon us in any case. If we go way back to the ‘50s, we had eight workers for every one person in receipt of public services. Around 2000, it was about five to one and projecting ahead to 2050, it’s about two workers for every retiree,” he said.
“And so if you project ahead to 2050, what you’re saying is: ‘Do people get half of the service that they currently get today? Do we work twice as hard or does something different have to happen?’ And I think the debate we’re in just now is, ‘what’s the something different that has to happen?’”
Yeates outlined what the expectations of future learners are likely to look like, including greater use of social media and more demand for personalisation and choice.
HM Chief Inspector of Education Kenneth Muir also noted that the “digital natives” now coming through the school system learn very differently to the way students have in the past. “Colleges are already and need to be more adaptive to taking account of these kinds of needs,” he said. “That’s the kind of world I think that we are in.”
John Spencer, Principals’ Convention Convenor of Scotland’s Colleges agreed that the flexible modes of learning colleges operate, through part time and online delivery, will be even more crucial going forward.
Adjusting to the needs of the modern learner also means making the system more joined up, according to Dr Janet Brown, Chief Executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. The “learner journey” through school, college, university and the workplace must be “seamless”, she argued.
“We must get rid of the anomalies and inconsistencies that exist in our system and in our individual practices,” Brown said.
“It’s important not to ask learners to repeat learning to satisfy institutional or qualification authority requirements.
“We’ve got to enhance articulation opportunities to help learners use their time and we use our resources effectively. It must recognise that not all learners have the luxury of studying full time for a number of years, no matter whether there are fees or there are not fees. For many, the journey needs to be much shorter.”
This point was seconded by NUS Scotland President Liam Burns, who said that too often students articulating from college to university are not having their prior learning recognised.
“Whenever we ask about articulation… the barriers that are flagged up are about curriculum design. I don’t believe that in all cases,” Burns said.
“Sometimes I think that is actually around about perceived prestige of where a student is coming from. Far too often we hear that someone will get their HND or HNC at a college and then apply to one type of institution – say Glasgow Calley [sic] – and they’ll be admitted into the second or third year as they should do under the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework. They apply to Glasgow and they’re told to go back to first year.”
To tackle this issue, Burns floated the idea of Higher National Certificate and Diploma (HNC and HND) qualifications – delivered at colleges and awarded by the SQA – being awarded instead by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).
“If curriculum design is honestly a barrier to students articulating appropriately, then why do subject descriptives for HND and HNC still lie with SQA? Maybe we should start thinking of moving that into QAA,” he said.