Stepping up a gear - Scotland's Colleges

Written by Alan Robertson on 10 March 2015 in Feature

Delegates at Holyrood’s colleges conference hear how the reform agenda continues

“I’ve been in college education 28 years,” says Paul Little, principal and chief executive of City of Glasgow College. “Only last year did I have two billionaires speak at my graduation. They would never have darkened my doors before; they are darkening doors on a regular basis now.” According to Little – whose college generates 40 per cent of all its income through commercial means and is working to deliver a suite of industry academies by the end of this year – it is a sign of the entrepreneurial nature that further education institutions are trying to uphold against a backdrop of shrinking government funding.

The FE sector has undoubtedly experienced upheaval in recent years with ten mergers culminating in 17 fewer colleges. Dr Elaine McMahon, interim principal of Edinburgh College, candidly acknowledges that in their own case milestones were often too ambitious and distinct cultures difficult to integrate. That said, the college system is now “more usable” for potential students, employers and local economies while outcome agreements – now entering their fourth year – represent a “step change” in terms of matching funding to local priorities, claims Dr John Kemp, director of access, skills and outcome agreements for the Scottish Funding Council.

Even so, the overall level of funding now being provided is somewhat diminished. Ken Wimbor, EIS assistant secretary, claims the Scottish Government made a “calculated decision” to target cuts on colleges from 2011 onwards given the political consequences of doing so with universities or schools would have been much more severe. “They took that deliberate calculation and took the money from further education at a time when the green shoots were just beginning to appear following the recession and at a time when people’s needs for skills and up-skilling could not have been higher,” he says. “They took the money away from the sector and I don’t think that’s forgivable.”

Against the backdrop of Sir Ian Wood’s landmark report nine months ago, a focus has remained on taking forward measures to improve job prospects for young people. “This will only work if parents and pupils in schools see real credibility in the vocational pathways that are created through Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce and they see these as something that fits in with the Curriculum for Excellence, that is a natural choice, and not one that leads you to a particular vocational dead end,” says Kemp. “We’ve all heard ‘vocational education is something for somebody else’s children’ – if it becomes that, it will not work. It has to be about a systemic change right at the core of the school curriculum.”

Government ministers hope their seven-year youth employment strategy, published off the back of Sir Ian’s report, will result in a forty per cent cut in youth unemployment. While Wimbor welcomes the focus, he warns that adult education is suffering as a result of a “wrong value judgment” that seeks to sacrifice one for the other. “The challenge is that there is a smaller funding pot for the whole of the public sector in Scotland and in the UK and it’s only ever going to decrease,” adds Little. 

“Yes, we can lobby and we should lobby for it to increase where we can because it’s necessary. But my energies are not going to be put in trying to stop the tide, my energies are to get onto the wave and let’s try and maximise where I am at right now. And if where I am at right now means my focus is on 16 to 24 year olds, then so be it.” That said, with around two-thirds of City of Glasgow’s 32,000 students outside the 16 to 24 age bracket, Little insists that older students are not being excluded.

“I’m going to sweat the asset for the 16 to 24 year olds as much as I possibly can,” he tells delegates. “I’m then going to protect as much as I possibly can of the adult [side] and by proving successful, you’re then in a stronger position to say to government, ‘you know what, government, if you could give us some more...’”

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