Scotland's colleges in flux

Written by Tom Freeman on 23 March 2017 in Feature

Five years on, the college sector is still coming to terms with restructuring

Thurso Engineering, North Highland College UHI

The restructuring of Scotland’s colleges between 2012 and 2013 has remained a controversial decision, one which the sector is still feeling the repercussions of.

Last summer Audit Scotland reported that no proper assessment had been made of the impact of a 41 per cent drop in overall student numbers in the last eight years.

There were also questions raised about the governance structure, calling for the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to play a more regulatory role.


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Reclassified as public bodies, the colleges were to co-ordinate with each other and with industry as part of a policy which prioritises full-time student places that lead to employment.

Shona Struthers, chief executive of umbrella body Colleges Scotland, welcomed a report in January by the SFC which said colleges were meeting targets on student numbers.

“It is about delivering quality courses that lead to recognised qualifications relevant to industry,” she said.

“The success of this approach is underlined by the fact that the number of students successfully completing their FE courses has increased by 17 per cent since 2008.

“We are also proud of the fact that more people are undertaking college courses as a pathway to higher education qualifications with the number of HE students at colleges increasing by almost a quarter since 2008. This has contributed to the achievement of a record number of students succeeding in gaining their qualifications.”

Indeed, this pathway, or ‘learner journey’, is something Colleges Scotland is keen to focus more on, with a recognition a more co-ordinated approach across schools, colleges, universities and employers would put learners more at the heart of funding and process.

Nevertheless, the overall number of students at colleges has dropped considerably, highlighted by the SFC’s college statistics. 

Education Secretary and Deputy First Minister John Swinney recently told Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee the shift from part-time courses to full time had been deliberate.

“I acknowledge that there has been a change in the balance of part-time and full-time courses in colleges,” he said.

“That has essentially been driven to try to provide courses that would lead to skills that are more relevant for entrance into the workplace. We have a range of part-time courses available where the skills are necessary and appropriate to gain access to the workplace. 

“Fundamentally, that decision has increased the relevance of the qualifications leading to employment.”

But this policy has had a direct impact on access to college education for women and those furthest removed from the labour market, according to the Audit Scotland report.

Auditor General Caroline Gardner said government and agencies needed to better understand the needs of students.

“The Scottish Government, SFC and colleges need to work together to improve their understanding of the demand for courses across the country and create long-term plans for how they will commit finances and staff to meet future need,” she said.

Swinney admitted to the Public Audit Committee that the Scottish Government had carried out impact assessments of the reforms retrospectively, and that budgets had been cut.
“We have gone through a merger process and we have had a reform process – there has been change in the sector,” Swinney told MSPs.

“When we undertake public sector reform, we do it to create a more efficient climate of operation, which means that resources that were previously required to support a model of operation that was more expensive to operate are no longer required. 

“In the forthcoming financial year, the budget that has been allocated to the college sector is increasing in terms of resource and capital, and that has been warmly welcomed by the college sector.”

But with 11 out of the 20 colleges forecasting deficits, whether the £41.5m increase in college funding put aside by the Scottish Government in this year’s budget will offset the years of decline remains to be seen. 

The Scottish Government ultimately needed the support of the Scottish Greens for its budget to progress, but amid the to and fro of budget trading, the Scottish Liberal Democrats had asked for a boost in funding for colleges.

“We wanted to put £93 million into colleges across Scotland. We wanted to restore funding levels to those of 2010. The SNP-Green budget does neither,” said the party’s education spokesperson Tavish Scott.

Meanwhile, will staff and students feel the benefits of what increase there is? 

Colleges requested an additional £5m in in-year student support funding this year, which the National Union of Students (NUS) says it highlights a shortfall in their original funding.

NUS Scotland President Vonnie Sandlan said it raised “serious questions about the sustainability and effectiveness of a system that requires colleges to go cap in hand to the SFC on an annual basis”.

Recent years have also seen a number of industrial disputes over pay among college staff, as moves to national pay deals and collective bargaining have progressed more slowly than anticipated.

Pay still varies across Scotland’s 26 colleges, although all sides have committed to national bargaining. The start of 2016 saw the new National Joint Negotiating Committee agree a commitment to give support workers the living wage across all colleges.

However, so far only one in five colleges can yet guarantee all employees the living wage, given the extent of the use of outside contractors.

And recently teaching union the EIS announced its Further Education Lecturers’ Association had declared a formal dispute with college managements over a lack of progress in implementing a pay agreement from last March.

EIS FELA president John Kelly said: “We took industrial action before to achieve this pay agreement, and we are fully prepared to take industrial action again, if necessary, to defend the agreement and to ensure it is delivered – as promised, and in full.” 

Colleges Scotland reacted furiously.

“Students and the college sector can only be damaged by the EIS’s unreasonable demands in the National Bargaining talks," a spokesperson for the employers' association said. 

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