Whichever way you look at it, colleges in England are entering a period of great uncertainty. A series of area reviews are being instigated, with the stated goal of ending up with “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers”. Institutions are being encouraged to explore collaboration and mergers to help them ride out the expected next round of savage cuts.
As well as achieving savings, ministers argue that the radical restructuring of further education will allow for greater specialisation and create “genuine centres of expertise”.
But while the area reviews will trigger an overhaul of FE provision that is unprecedented in England, for colleges in Scotland the scenario sounds all too familiar. In 2011, then education secretary Michael Russell announced an ambitious programme of reform. “There will be tough choices,” he told the Scottish Parliament as he unveiled the proposals.
Official guidance later that year laid bare what this would mean: larger, regional organisations. “Evidence from recent mergers shows money can be saved and service to students sustained and improved by the creation of larger efficient colleges,” it said.
Within the sector, reaction was less than enthusiastic. Unions warned that a rushed process would alienate college staff, and was driven by a desire to cut costs rather than improve the learning experience. Student representatives, in turn, voiced their concerns that regional colleges would limit local access.
Four years later, the college landscape has changed fundamentally in Scotland. After a series of mergers, nearly all of them formalised in 2013, FE is now organised into 13 regions, mostly serviced by a single college. Today, only Glasgow, Lanarkshire and the Highlands and Islands have more than one.
The transition has not been plain sailing. The timing of Scottish college reform was challenging – and in many ways similar to the position the English sector now finds itself in. Scottish government funding dropped by more than 12 per cent in real terms between 2011-12 and 2013-14, at the same time as most colleges embarked on mergers which, while it was hoped they would deliver long-term savings, proved costly initially.