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College mergers: Is England following Scotland on the troubled road to FE reform?

There are painful lessons for England's colleges to learn from the wholesale reorganisation of institutions north of the border

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There are painful lessons for England's colleges to learn from the wholesale reorganisation of institutions north of the border

On a day of major revelations for the FE sector, it was an announcement you could be excused for having overlooked. On Monday morning, London’s City and Islington College and neighbouring Westminster Kingsway College revealed they were exploring “closer collaboration” with the potential for a merger.

Minutes later came the publication of a government review calling for “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers” to deal with the significant pressures the FE sector faces. This, the review said, would allow greater specialisation and create “genuine centres of expertise”.

Having spent much of my time over the past few years closely observing developments in Scottish FE, this sounds all too familiar. Less than four years ago, Scotland's then education secretary Michael Russell announced plans to restructure the nation’s colleges into regional groupings. He said the change would allow them to be more cost-effective and remove “wasteful duplication”. There were also hopes that the new, much larger institutions would be able to accommodate local economic needs more easily and work more closely with employers.

A period of frantic change and upheaval ensued as colleges across the country began to pursue mergers – at a time when they also faced what turned out to be a real-terms funding cut of over 12 per cent in two years.

Today, the Scottish college sector looks very different to how it did in 2011. The 37 colleges that existed in 2011-12 have been merged into 20 larger institutions, which in turn are organised into 13 regions. Of these, 11 have only one college. Along with the number of institutions, staff numbers in the sector has also dropped – some say by almost 10 per cent – and there are thousands fewer students than there were three years ago.

There has been some good news, however. Audit Scotland reported earlier this year that mergers had contributed to “significant” efficiency savings, and concluded that the structural changes had a “minimal negative impact” on students.

But it has not been a smooth ride. College principals and chairs have faced votes of no confidence; institutions have been beset by industrial action. Surveys carried out by unions also showed the toll on the sector's workforce, with workload, stress and distrust on the rise. And worse may yet be to come because, despite the structural changes, the financial pressures have not eased. There is no prospect of them doing so any time soon.

College staff in Scotland have done what will no doubt be asked of their counterparts in England: they have, in many ways, “made it work”. But as the English FE sector braces itself for whatever the coming months may bring, there are lessons to be learned from the Scottish story. Because the road of restructuring and reform is bound to take a toll on those who travel it. 

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