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Colleges, face facts, you were better placed with councils

Moves to quasi-independence were seen as advantageous, yet have proved to be anything but

Moves to quasi-independence were seen as advantageous, yet have proved to be anything but

I wrote a piece for the TESS in August 2010, lamenting the departure of Scottish further education colleges from council control before the abolition of the supportive regional councils in 1996.

A silent college reaction was predictable, but a retired principal told me that I was right, and that colleges would come to regret their so-called independent status. And how right he was, with regionalisation, centralisation and the end of local college autonomy topping the current agenda as cuts begin to bite.

Colleges would now be better placed if they had stayed with councils, the structure that created them, and closely connected to them alongside schools. Councils would have cushioned them against cuts, integrated them more effectively into the education system as a whole, and developed them, in the right direction. And support services would have been provided centrally with resources concentrated on teaching and learning.

But some colleges could not wait to escape councils, and many, encouraged to think of themselves as businesses, became obsessed with revenue and planning, rather than students. Some got above themselves and wanted to be quasi-universities, clearly forgetting their roots. Moving college resourcing to the Scottish Funding Council ensured that colleges would be the poor relations of universities when the going got tough.

Colleges lost the place when they started to regard principals as chief executives, and when the last former Strathclyde Regional Council- appointed principal to stay in touch by teaching a class retired a few years ago, the game was up.

So, in early 2012, with the axing of several colleges on the horizon, as the great molloch of Education Scotland stands by to gobble up the remains, perhaps as a first step to demolishing local control in Scottish education, the new Scotland rushes to have Scottish-branded institutions as proof positive of its nascent nationhood, with FE as an early victim.

Further education colleges are partly the authors of their own misfortune, mistaking the move to quasi-independence as advantageous, when it has been anything but. Add over-expansion in many fields, especially expensive and rarely-beneficial overseas links, ill-advised special entry arrangements for students to universities, and a general acceptance of a business model that is overly interested in Student Unit of Measurements (Sums).

So, colleges will repent at leisure as reality bites, and the lesson to be learnt is that councils would have cushioned them against the shocks of the recession, better than the vulnerable business-led model we have today. Schools contemplating a future without councils, please take note.

Hugh Dougherty - Former local government press officer

Hugh Dougherty is now a freelance journalist.

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