Colleges will need to "think the unthinkable" and take a "fearless approach" to reform to deal with cuts to their budgets, the Minister for Learning and Skills, Alasdair Allan, has warned principals.
He told the annual conference of Scotland's Colleges last week that although he admired the crucial work done by the further education sector, colleges were operating in a different context from a couple of years ago.
Dr Allan laid the blame for this on the pound;1.3 billion cut in Scottish public expenditure "imposed by the UK Government"; as a result, reform had to be top of the agenda.
"We know we have to protect the health of our nation, and we have to protect vital public services delivered by our councils. The result is that we are forced to set budgets in all other areas, including colleges, at levels which give us no pleasure whatsoever," said Dr Allan.
Ministers would have no option but to take a closer interest in college reform to ensure both the national and the local interest was considered, he added.
He urged colleges to loosen their "grip on systems and methodologies designed for different times", and to find the "drive and confidence to think the unthinkable in a way which circumstances have rarely required us to do in the past".
The creation of City of Glasgow College and the negotiations over a merger between Stevenson and Jewel amp; Esk colleges in Edinburgh were beacons of this new need to do "the same with less", the minister argued.
John Henderson, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges, responded: "Scotland's Colleges looks forward to entering into dialogue with Dr Alasdair Allan as the Scottish Government's policies continue to evolve."
Call for reform
The Learning and Skills Minister's calls for reform were echoed by John McClelland, chair of the Scottish Funding Council. With local delivery a crucial characteristic of college education in Scotland, there were not too many college locations in Scotland, he said.
But a case could be made for there being too many college institutions, and mergers and closer co-operation should be considered, he told principals. More than 30 colleges in Scotland were considering possible mergers, he said. The sector had to think about how it could become more flexible, and put a greater focus on alternative learner routes through better articulation between different sectors. Alternative routes of income, through funding streams attached to schemes such as Skills Development Scotland's "Get Ready for Work" programme, should also be considered, he said.