Focusing on personalities throws little light on the problems with college reforms
A handful of press releases arrived within a few hours of each other last week dealing with the controversy at Stow College. Two were from a PR firm representing Stow and its now-ex chairman, Kirk Ramsay. The second featured Ramsay’s mobile telephone number, and judging from the press coverage the following day, many news outlets availed themselves of it to get across Ramsay’s account of his downfall.
Another press release was from UNISON, which represents thousands of support staff in the Edinburgh college sector. It very sensibly made the point that as the Scottish media and politicians debated what was said and recorded at a meeting, the greater concern should be who was and was not at the meeting at all. “Cuts, mergers and regionalisation are going ahead without full involvement of FE staff and their representatives in the process,” it said, at a time when hundreds of jobs were being lost in the sector. It was not followed up.
Not one figure in this situation has turned down the opportunity to put his foot in his mouth. Ramsay’s resignation and subsequent comments have fuelled the controversy far beyond what its substance merited. The Education Secretary should have shown greater restraint and not issued any public comments on Ramsay’s future, instead of leaving such an obvious open goal for his opponents to score in. Stewart Maxwell has been writing the newspapers’ headlines for them by calling Ramsay’s recording device a ‘spy pen’.
Conversely, others have been silent who perhaps should have seen it as their role to speak up. Scotland’s Colleges have been absent from this debate, despite Ramsay’s presence on its board of management. Nor have any of Ramsay’s colleagues in Glasgow or elsewhere in the sector spoken up in his defence. “Does that not tell its own story?” Ramsay says of this. “There’s no question people are scared and in fear for their livelihoods.” Others may interpret the lack of comment differently.
Ramsay’s resignation from an unremunerated position will have little impact on his circumstances. Support staff – like all classes of further education employees – have much to be apprehensive about as their numbers are reduced. If there is a culture of fear and silence in colleges, it certainly is not at the upper levels – where I have found many college leaders willing to speak candidly, albeit off the record – but rather on the shop floor, where staff have been unwilling to speak, even anonymously. Certainly there is no fear of speaking critically at organisations like UNISON, the EIS, NUS Scotland and others.
There are reforms of the college sector under way in Scotland that will involve huge upheaval. Job losses are guaranteed, and provision will change in ways that could have a huge impact on some learners. Focusing on personalities rather than people or provision, while creating short-lived headlines, does little to advance the cause of those who want to discuss the problems of college reform.