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With impending cuts, we must protect provision

The realism expressed by Ray Harris, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges, about the shape of the further education sector in Scotland is very stimulating (TESS October 8). Cuts are acknowledged as the trigger, but an implicit point is that the changes are overdue and have previously been avoided.

Scotland has lagged behind other parts of the UK in acting on the arguments for change. It has lived within a paradox in which lively discussions around performance and impact, stimulated by the colleges themselves, appeared detached from debate about significant restructuring as a means of bringing about improvements.

These are desperate times, but there can still be constructive caution around solutions. There is a spectrum of options and speculating on a reduced number of colleges, while ultimately a likely outcome, might obscure and obstruct more immediate and productive collaboration.

Take note that all the current research on mergers in England, all of them floated on the rhetoric of economies of scale, demonstrate increased costs.

With impending cuts, it is essential to protect provision. This has to take priority over radical restructuring. There are imaginative patterns of collaboration already in place in the UK and internationally that achieve progressive resource alignment.

Dr Harris refers directly to initiatives on shared services. There has never been a more pertinent moment for the case for shared services to be made on economic grounds. "More for Less" may be the Government's desire: for institutions, the default position might be maintaining existing levels of service with reduced resources.

Shared services, on backroom functions such as IT, finance, printing and marketing, can be the vehicle for delivering efficiency and economy. They would allow for economies of scale and a wider choice of services which, in turn, would introduce a wider range of skills.

Shared services can be part of a strategic vision, rather than an act of necessity just to achieve "early wins" and savings. Through shared services, resources can be released for curriculum innovation and flexibility of delivery. Such agility on the part of institutions offers the prospect of engaging with new agendas, new students, changed learning markets and the potential of providing "more for more".

Whatever can be achieved through shared services, the number of colleges in Scotland will be a prominent issue. The absence of radical approaches to date may derive from the self-preservation of vested, institutional interests.

Questions need to be asked about the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of critical mass; the co-existence of colleges of very different sizes; the consistency of the student experience; and the capacity of colleges to influence regional patterns.

Structural re-organisation in England and Wales seems to have no parallel in Scotland. In England, major institutions have been created already through bold college mergers, for example in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, west London and Bristol.

Structural change is not justified simply for the sake of forming a new, super-sized institution. The issue is about creating an institutional format that can have maximum impact in urban areas, where serial educational under-achievement and disadvantage sit alongside ambitions to heighten the knowledge and skills' bases to world-class standards. All of Scotland's metropolitan areas would be comfortable with these outcomes.

The range of urban environments in England provides more opportunity for distinctive restructuring. In contrast lies the situation in Wales, a country more resembling Scotland's demographic profile, which has also adopted a radical approach.

The first major step was an independent review of further education in Wales (the Webb report). The core review team was tight, consisting of three, and not from within the sector.

It produced an extremely penetrative report, recommending reconstruction of the sector in pursuit of four key Es - entitlement, employability, excellence and efficiency. Significantly, the review made recommendations about the minimum critical mass of individual colleges and suggested they should be reduced to less than half the current figure of 23.

Dr Harris emphasised that form follows function, which should lead to critical self-examination by the sector and a willingness to face up to difficult decisions.

Bill Wardle is a consultant and former college principal.

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