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Clubbing together to save money seemed a good idea ..

... but it has provoked unions to reach for their lawyers

... but it has provoked unions to reach for their lawyers

With national budgets being slashed, and thousands of redundancies in the pipeline at colleges across the country, the FE sector is under even greater financial pressure than normal. Improving efficiency is the constant refrain from both ministers and principals, and many colleges are keen to rise to the challenge of creating a more cost-effective modus operandi.

But with dozens of pilot projects being developed around the country to explore new ways in which colleges might pool their resources, unions this week waded into the debate all guns blazing. Clearly nervous that such developments would lead to a fresh wave of job losses, particularly for back-office staff, they have thrown down the gauntlet to employers.

Citing colleges' legal obligation to talk to trade unions before embarking on changes that could affect employees' pay and conditions, Mike Robinson, Unite's FE national officer, has threatened to take colleges that fail to comply to court. "On shared services planning, colleges are already failing to consult, and are opening up legal challenges that Unite will take on. It is bad partnership working - and potentially unlawful. Colleges have been warned that if there is no consultation with Unite we will take these matters to tribunal," he said.

Under the guise of the FE Efficiency and Innovation Fund, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has handed out a total of #163;4 million to projects for developing new means of collaboration. The ultimate aim? To save colleges money. For example, Epping Forest, Easton, Chelmsford, Huntingdonshire and Oaklands colleges, along with New College Stamford, are exploring a model of sharing HR, purchasing and finance expertise. The colleges hope to generate savings by sharing back-office functions over the next two to three years.

Another example can be found in a non-geographically specific group of Moulton, Bishop Burton, Hartpury, Myerscough and Sparsholt colleges, which are looking at combining some of their services "to avoid duplication and reduce costs". And, as well as looking to collaborate on back-office functions, Nescot, Greenwich and Bexley colleges are exploring whether sharing front-office, student-related services can produce "both significant efficiency savings and service improvements".

According to the AoC, the primary goal of the efficiency projects is to protect services to students in the light of the economic pressure on colleges, and to balance the need to reduce costs with the duty to protect their "core service" of education. Some of the projects are "as much about protecting jobs as improving efficiency", according to assistant chief executive Julian Gravatt, who insisted that the AoC encourages colleges to cultivate strong relationships with unions when developing shared services.

While Unite feels as if it has been sidelined, the AoC argues that the union has regular opportunities to raise its concerns with its officers. If the two sides cannot even agree on their level of interaction, clearly some better lines of communication are needed before they even begin to tackle the really difficult stuff.

Sharing the load

In June 2010, business secretary Vince Cable announced that #163;15 million would be made available for the Skills Funding Agency, the Association of Colleges and the FE sector to work together to develop "an innovative suite of shared service solutions". An initial #163;2 million was distributed to 21 projects through the FE Efficiency and Innovation Fund. Since then 20 more have received a portion of an additional #163;2 million that has been made available through the scheme.

Qualifications project

One of the concepts being developed through the fund is the college qualifications project. Exam board OCR is working with Westminster Kingsway, North Hertfordshire and Walsall colleges to get FE institutions to help design qualifications themselves. They plan to use podcasts, self-study and internet learning to reduce teaching costs, and the partners are also examining ways of creating teaching resources and new methods of assessment.

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