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Colleges are keeping their balance - but only just

It seems that Audit Scotland's recent report on the country's colleges, published earlier this month, has some truly good news to impart (pages 16-18).

Despite harsh funding cuts and a significant reduction in the number of staff, it concludes that the sector is reasonably financially healthy and that colleges are maintaining the number of learning hours being delivered.

Perhaps most importantly, the report also concludes that the student experience has come through regionalisation largely unharmed. There is no overestimating the size of this achievement by the lecturers, support staff and college managers on the ground.

These people have faced a huge amount of change, uncertainty and extra work over the past few years. The colleges that employ them have changed completely, from the way they are run to their name, size and management.

In some college regions, this has created tensions between staff and management that will take years to resolve. At all levels, staff have had to watch their colleagues leave, adding to the upheaval and contributing to the workload of those who remain.

Added to that, some staff have been hit by what Colleges Scotland chief executive Shona Struthers, in her interview with us this week (see pages 12-13), calls the "ludicrous" additional workload created by the reclassification of colleges by the Office for National Statistics.

And still they have managed to provide a learning experience that student representatives believe is equal to what came before. All around the country, college staff have come up with innovative ideas to improve even further and offer new opportunities to learners - from projects using music to re-engage learners ("Oasis star helps next generation of guitar heroes", 17 April) to celebrating last week's International Girls in ICT Day.

But the Audit Scotland report does not tell the whole story. It is on too large a scale to reflect the views of individuals or how their ways of working have changed along with the sector. And it only takes one look at the comments from the principal and staff on pages 16-18 to realise the toll the past few years have taken.

Fears also seem to be high that the worst is yet to come. Structural changes are still bedding in; relationships are fragile and in some areas fractured. Uncertainty remains over the long-term funding of the sector, with commitments not extending beyond the three-year budget cycle.

After almost four years of constant change, college staff have managed to keep the focus on the most important thing: providing a high-class education for students of all ages and from all backgrounds. But it seems a difficult balance. For the sake of learners, one can only hope that what lies around the corner for the sector is a time of reasonable stability, not something that will unbalance it.

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