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Combining to compete

While the headlines may be dominated by mergers and the spotlight is on Glasgow's fraught efforts on that front, less dramatic college developments show there is more than one way to skin the collaborative cat.

The best-known example of collaboration in Scottish FE is, of course, the partnership involving the eight Highland colleges to develop the University of the Highlands and Islands. Less well known, but a significant example of progress over the past four years, is the Glasgow Colleges Group, which involves nine colleges in the city.

Other collaborative efforts include:

* The BRITE centre at Stevenson College, Edinburgh, where all 46 colleges have come together to work on "assistive technologies" for students who need special support.

* A joint centre of engineering for Fife and Glenrothes colleges which share services such as finance, marketing and personnel.

* New approaches to learning by Cardonald, Falkirk, Cumbernauld and Angus colleges.

* A consortium of 14 colleges led by West Lothian College is investigating how services such as bursaries can be improved.

* A staff development group of eight colleges in the south and east of Scotland.

* Distance learning links between North Highland and Argyll colleges.

One of the latest ventures involves the six Edinburgh and Lothian colleges, which serve some 70,000 students and employ 2,000 people. They form the core of the south-east of Scotland staff development project which Sue Pinder, principal of West Lothian College, describes as "one of the most successful and enduring examples of our collaboration".

The venture has enriched initial teacher training and staff's continuing professional development, she says.

The six Lothian colleges are also attempting something more ambitious than simply developing individual projects. The six principals hold an annual strategy meeting, in addition to regular monthly meetings, where they decide on collaborative ventures. They now have a strategy for embedding that strategy.

The criteria for collaboration are varied, beginning with the question: "Is this something that all colleges do?" Colleges then ask themselves whether they will all benefit from the proposed activity, whether it can be done more effectively together and whether there are economies of scale.

The six Edinburgh and Lothian colleges are very different, ranging from tiny Newbattle to giant Telford. But Ms Pinder says: "It is their differences and specific characteristics that the six colleges are able to celebrate and exploit through carefully targeted collaborative initiatives designed to add value to their individual offerings."

Collectively, she says, the colleges are unable to meet the demand for further education within the region and, as such, do not see themselves in competition.

As a result of the principals' strategic meeting last year, staff were invited to come up with collaborative proposals. Three projects were extended, because of continuing benefits to the colleges, and two new ones were selected.

The principals believe that involving staff from an early stage gives the projects a credibility they might not otherwise have, a point underlined in last year's HMI report on collaboration in learning and teaching in FE colleges.

The three Lothians projects involve joint marketing, which led to a successful television advertising campaign last year, "curriculum mapping", which aims to improve the colleges' joint understanding of course supply and demand, and the combined recruitment and training of board members, which is believed to be unique in Scotland (TESS, January 10, 2003).

Two new projects for 2004 will introduce the education maintenance allowances that are designed to encourage more youngsters to stay on at school or college and an ambitious "jobswap" programme allowing academic and support staff to take up placements in each of the colleges.

The colleges believe that collaborative ventures give them an edge. Ms Pinder comments: "We are not saying we are unique in what we do but we believe we are successful in what we do."

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