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'Cut price' college in election firing line

The future of Inverness College became an election issue this week over plans for dramatic reductions in spending following the Government's squeeze on further education costs.

Leaders of the four unions representing academic and support staff were considering this week whether to go ahead with a ballot to back strike action against proposals they claim would lead to the sacking of one in six of the college's 300 staff. Students and staff at three outlying centres specialising in aquaculture, forestry and media with art and design face relocation to Inverness.

The college has the fifth highest staff costs among the 43 incorporated colleges, according to the Scottish Office's annual FE report last year. Staffing accounted for Pounds 172 for each measured unit of student activity, against a Scottish average of Pounds 143.

Inverness was a major casualty of the Government's grant allocations for 1997-98 and is one of 11 whose funds were covered by a "safety net" to avoid funding being reduced by more than the maximum 6 per cent loss allowed under a Scottish Office formula. The college's Pounds 5.6 million grant still fell by Pounds 358,300.

The unions want the college to make a joint representation to the Scottish Office. But Janet Price, the principal, dubbed "Cut" Price by union leaders in increasingly acrimonious exchanges this week, insists the college will lose nearly Pounds 1 million this year if no cuts are made. This would rise to Pounds 1.3 million in 1998-99 when the safety net is due to be withdrawn.

Inverness is only the latest in a long line of colleges that were generously treated by their former education authority owners and are struggling to adjust to the Government's policy of harmonising unit costs.

But its troubles have been given an added twist by the election campaign because Mary Scanlon, a lecturer at the college, is the Tory candidate in Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber, regarded as a winnable four-way marginal. She says efficiencies have to be made. Heather Sheerin, the local Tory party chairman, is vice-chairman of the college's board of management.

Meanwhile the result of a strike ballot among members of the College Lecturers' Association at Motherwell College is due today (Friday) and a rally is planned in the town centre tomorrow. Lecturers are protesting against the college's refusal to rule out compulsory redundancies as it wrestles with a Pounds 500,000 deficit.

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