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Colleges and universities can do 'more with less', says FE leader

In tough times, sectors advised to work together based on a clearer understanding of their roles

In tough times, sectors advised to work together based on a clearer understanding of their roles

"I believe we can do more with less". That is the candid message for the new session from Graham Johnstone, who heads the congress of board chairs in further education.

As colleges and universities brace themselves for unprecedented pressures on their budgets in the 2011-12 academic year, Mr Johnstone believes the two sectors must work together based on a clearer understanding of their respective roles.

"Universities explore, colleges exploit," he suggests. This means that HE research drives innovation and creates wealth through entrepreneurship, leading to vocational opportunities provided through FE.

His comments reflect an increasing clamour for students to begin their post-school journey with Higher National courses in colleges followed by two years in university, the so-called "2+2 articulation".

This will not only help students progress into HE for their own benefit, it is claimed, it will also reduce costs since colleges can deliver courses which are 50 per cent cheaper than those of universities. Collaboration will therefore reduce the total cost of FE and HE.

Mr Johnstone, a businessman who chairs the board at Adam Smith College in Fife, suggests that 43 colleges in Scotland is too many - although, like John McClelland, chair of the Scottish Funding Council, he stops short of being prescriptive on numbers.

Mr McClelland says his council is "not in the business of encouraging mass mergers." The bruising experience of its pound;300 million flagship venture to create a "super college" in Glasgow city centre, about which the Government appears to harbour fresh doubts, might well have put the cat among that particular set of pigeons. But the SFC is giving a small amount of financial backing to support "federations" of colleges working together, which includes rationalising college courses and sharing backroom services.

Mr Johnstone agrees with the strategy, arguing that there is too much "duplication of effort" in FE which he describes as a "fragmented sector".

He suggests costs could be reduced and efficiency enhanced through "cluster groups" of colleges. These clusters would be centred on the new Inverness university college at Beechwood in the city, the Glasgow "super campus", Fife, Tayside, the west coast, Lothian and Borders, Forth and Clyde Valley, AberdeenAberdeenshire and the land-based colleges led by the Scottish Agricultural College. Each of these groups would have links to local universities.

Apart from Glasgow and the colleges which have come together as part of the putative University of the Highlands and Islands, the most advanced set of talks are taking place between the three Lothian colleges - Jewel and Esk, Stevenson and Telford. A position statement is expected in December.

But, as with all such negotiations, personalities become important. The arrival of a new principal at Edinburgh's Telford, Miles Dibsdall, has upset the apple cart, leaving Jewel and Esk and Stevenson considerably more enthusiastic about collaboration than Telford.

Mr Dibsdall likes to do things differently: his college's "celebration of excellence" in September has comedienne Ruby Wax as its star attraction. Subsuming himself within a collegiate framework does not appear to be his style.

While Mr Johnstone is an enthusiast for internal change, he also wants to see colleges step up a gear to promote what they do and look outward to employers and their local communities. "We are too slow and lag with information," he says. The FE message, in effect, is: the nation's economic difficulties are the colleges' opportunity.

But, Mr Johnstone acknowledges, colleges will first have to address their weaknesses: become proactive not reactive, cut out waste across the curriculum, reduce "competitive forces" between colleges and improve "variable levels of delivery excellence". He even urges college managements to tackle what he concedes are the "poor relationships" with key partners such as the unions and students.

Mr McClelland of the funding council wants to see colleges planning on the basis of fewer resources. "The clock is starting to tick," he told Scotland's Colleges annual conference in June. "Colleges will have to become selective in what they offer and to whom it is offered".

While he said "one or two colleges" might succumb in the face of these challenges, he suggested the sector as a whole was in a better position to meet them than it was even five years ago: the latest figures show that 40 of the 43 colleges are forecasting a surplus.

Mr Johnstone also tries to balance optimism and pessimism. "We do a difficult job very well indeed."

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