Colleges are in the last stretch of a period of unprecedented change
When the new college term begins in August, Scotland’s further education sector will be unrecognisable from the one that existed when Education Secretary Michael Russell announced the Scottish Government’s post-16 reforms a year earlier, on 14 September 2011.
The idea of Scotland’s 40-odd further education institutions operating as individual institutions will be consigned to the past. Instead, an entirely new administrative and funding structure will be in place, with shadow boards for the 13 new college regions beginning the process of operating the sector under new regional outcome agreements. Many individual colleges will have ceased to exist by this point in any case, or will have begun to move towards merger: nine Glasgow colleges in 2010 will have become just three; mergers will be underway in Fife and the west of Scotland; and Scotland will, for the first time, have a single national agricultural college. Government reforms aside, the sector will undertaking reforms in its own right: Scotland’s Colleges will have overhauled the way it operates and represents the sector under a new banner, Colleges Scotland.
Delivering the keynote address at Scotland’s Colleges annual conference on 21 June, Russell recognised the fact that the speed and depth of the changes had given the sector a turbulent year. “Let me start by saying thank you to all of you for the work that you have done over the last nine months,” he said. “Perhaps I should say the work you’ve done for much longer than that, but particularly for the work over the last nine months.” The previous day, trade unions representing college staff had demonstrated outside the Scottish Parliament, holding a meeting with the cabinet secretary afterwards. “One of them said to me, ‘You don’t know what it’s like on the front line within colleges’. That is absolutely true; I’ve not been on the front line within colleges, but all of you have been on that front line over the last year, and all of you have had to cope with what has been a very difficult situation.” Russell also acknowledged the political battle he has had to wage in implementing the reforms.
“I’ve been on a very different front line and at times that’s not been easy either, but I do appreciate the work that each and every one of you have done and your staff within every college has done to take us forward to where we are now.” He insisted that “some of the worst predictions have not come to bear”, particularly as regards last year’s furore over forced mergers of colleges, and defended the funding settlement given to the sector by the Scottish Government, blaming Scotland’s constitutional arrangements for. “Bringing change together at a time when there are other pressures is particularly difficult. If it had been possible for me to suggest a change within a longer timescale I would have done so; but it was not possible given the unnatural nature of the financing of the Scottish Government has to take from Westminster,” he concluded, bringing the Scotland’s wider constitutional debate into the argument.
The full detail emerged a week later, when the Russell gave an update to the Scottish Parliament on the post-16 policy. As was suggested at the conference, new regional college boards will take precedence over individual institution boards, which will be “much smaller and learner, focussing on the day-to-day operational management of the college.” All funding from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) will be directed through the regional boards, with regional outcome agreements being concluded between regions and the SFC.
A list of appointees to lead 12 of the 13 new college regions was also unveiled, with former First Minister Henry McLeish taking the helm in Glasgow and Ian McKay leading Edinburgh’s soon-to-be single college region. Other notable appointments include former Liberal Democrat Highland Council leader Dr Michael Foxley, and Professor Russell Griggs – whose review of further education governance helped create the framework for the reforms – taking charge in Ayrshire. Russell announced that in addition to appointing regional chairs, ministers will also appoint the first boards of newly-merged colleges, following new guidelines on their composition that guarantee representation for students and local authorities.
Following the battles over college mergers, ministerial appointments to college and regional boards is set to become the next political set-piece connected to the post-16 reforms. While welcoming general direction of the reforms, Labour’s education spokesman, Hugh Henry condemned what he called a “massive power grab”, adding that Russell “had created unprecedented levels of central command and control as never seen before. Instead of those in our local colleges, who know best, making decisions on the ground, it will now be made by faceless civil servants under Government diktats from the Cabinet Secretary.” Henry’s comments were echoed by Conservative education spokeswoman, Liz Smith, who said she was “very concerned about the reform process”, and that ministerial board appointments would “threaten the autonomy of our further education institutions.” Implementing regionalisation and the new outcome agreements won’t be the only reform that colleges have to navigate come August; representative body Scotland’s Colleges is set to revamp its own structures after calls from within and without the organisation for change. “I think the task of reforming your own organisation is also one that requires attention,” Russell had told delegates at the Scotland’s Colleges conference.
“I do think it is important that the sector has an efficient and effective organisation that represents it. There are colleges that have said to me quite openly that they are not getting what they needed to get from Scotland’s Colleges. You need to think that through, and you need to decide what body can best represent you. I will welcome the emergence of that body if it works as effectively as Universities Scotland.” A week later, the organisation gave its response, implementing the recommendations of Scottish Electoral Commission representative John McCormick, who was asked by Scotland’s Colleges to look into its structure and working practices in 2011.
The organisation will separate its service delivery and advocacy functions, which will be undertaken by two new and separate boards, and will adopt a new name, Colleges Scotland, bringing it into line with the branding of higher education representative body, Universities Scotland.
“We commissioned this review because we wanted to ensure Scotland’s Colleges, as the sector’s advocate and delivery partner, is as efficient and effective as possible,” chief executive John Henderson said. “We recognised some inherent anomalies in the organisation’s governance structure and sought independent advice on how to improve it. John McCormick has done an excellent job in capturing the views of our members and staff and his recommendations have provided a strong basis for us to move forward. We have already begun implementing change in consultation with our member colleges, which are firmly behind us.”