Colleges ‘coped well’ with difficult mergers

Written by Tom Freeman on 2 April 2015 in News

Budget watchdog says Scotland’s further education colleges managed their finances and organisation well through the process of merging into bigger public bodies, with falling student and staff numbers

Scotland’s further education colleges managed their finances and organisation well through the process of merging into bigger public bodies, Audit Scotland has reported.

In Scotland’s Colleges 2015, published this morning, the spending watchdog also warns the effects of the changes will continue, with implications for funding, learning provision, and how colleges are managed and scrutinised.

While the report suggests students’ learning has not been badly affected so far, Auditor General Caroline Gardner said it was “important the Scottish Government and the SFC work with colleges to measure and publicly report on whether the reforms have delivered all of the intended benefits".

The number of students attending colleges has dropped 36 per cent since 2011, the report highlights, while the fulltime equivalent (FTE) figure has fallen but remained more stable due to slight increases in numbers of students studying full time. Numbers of students over 25 have decreased significantly.

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said the report highlighted the Scottish Government’s “shocking” record on colleges.

“Fewer students, fewer staff, less money, this is the stark reality of the SNP’s record on colleges. And the Scottish ministers’ excuse that they have focused on young, ‘full-time equivalent’ students is revealed as bogus – even they have plummeted by 3000,” he said.

The move to reclassify colleges as public bodies has led to greater accountability, the report says.

A spokesman for FE umbrella body Colleges Scotland said the move had been unprecedented because, “no other sector had been reclassified from private to public”.

However Audit Scotland also highlighted the fact reclassification had led to the formation of arm's-length, independent foundations to protect colleges’ financial reserves, with colleges transferring £99m to these foundations in 2013-14.

“As the foundations are independent, there is no guarantee colleges will be able to access the transferred funds,” it says.

The National Union of Students (NUS) expressed concerns about the funds in light of the challenges still facing the college sector. President of NUS Scotland Gordon Maloney said “serious questions” needed to be asked about how much had been “stashed away”.

“All the good work our colleges do, particularly for those from our most disadvantaged communities, stands at risk as a result of budget shortages. That’s why it’s unbelievable to discover that colleges built up, then squirreled away, reserves of £99 million, which are now sitting in arms-length bodies,” he said.

Student support should be prioritised instead, he argued.

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