It was barely five years ago, but the then-education secretary Michael Russell’s speech urging colleges to do “more for less” as he announced reforms must feel like an eternity ago for most people in the sector.
The subsequent mergers, along with the changes to governance, priorities and structures, have created a fundamentally different college landscape – and maybe the fact that Audit Scotland’s report on the FE sector concludes that its financial health is “relatively stable” is credit to the resilience of both colleges in general, and their staff in particular.
The report also finds that the sector is delivering on its commitments to increase the proportion of provision that is full-time, and to focus on younger learners.
But, sadly, the story is not quite that straightforward. And, in fact, it could be argued that colleges are not delivering Mr Russell’s “more for less”: student numbers overall decreased by a staggering 41 per cent between 2007-08 and 2014-15 – by 48 per cent in the case of part-time learners, according to Audit Scotland. Attainment, which had steadily increased between 2009-10 and 2013-14, dropped in 2014-15, along with student retention.
But these figures cannot be viewed in isolation. Because behind the headline figures, the road that colleges have travelled since the government announced sector reform has been a rocky one, to say the least.
TESS has repeatedly reported on cuts to funding, and Audit Scotland this week highlights the 18 per cent drop in Scottish government funding to the sector between 2010-11 and 2014-15. As a consequence of this, and the merger processes, staff numbers fell by 9 per cent between 2011-12 and 2013-14.
The road that colleges have travelled has been a rocky one, to say the least
This is in an environment where the government prioritises offering a place in education, training or work for every 16- to 19-year-old; where it places demands on colleges to continue to offer opportunities for adult learners; and, importantly, where colleges are increasingly engaging with school-aged children as part of the Developing the Young Workforce strategy.
Not only is this an organisational challenge that colleges grapple with as they negotiate the still relatively new national bargaining process, it is also a challenge at an individual level.
As colleges, over the coming weeks, begin to welcome a new cohort of learners of all ages, the new environment they find themselves operating in is worth considering. Only this week, one college lecturer told me about the challenge of being a teacher delivering entry level skills to a group of 16-year-olds who are out of the school environment for the first time, then, an hour later, teaching university-level courses to older learners who very much require a “lecturer” in the traditional sense.
All this, he said, with larger class sizes and fewer colleagues to share the burden. This is one of the major challenges that colleges will have to continue to struggle with over the coming year, and Audit Scotland’s finding that the number of staff employed increased by 5 per cent in 2014-15 is an indication of how the sector is attempting to do that. But it will not be the only challenge.
The sector is once again facing strike action over the pay deal offered to support staff, and finances continue to be tight.
I don’t doubt the sector will continue to deliver, and offer exceptional opportunities to tens of thousands of learners at all levels – such is the nature of those working in Scotland’s colleges. But the question is, really, how much more can be asked of a sector without additional financial support?