It's been a game of two halves

John Sellars looks back on the 10 years since further education colleges in Scotland were incorporated.

FROM the mid-sixties up to incorporation in 1993, the FE sector in Scotland flourished under the auspices of the local authorities. From being 10 years behind the English sector, by the late eighties Scottish colleges were well ahead - providing modern and modular vocational programmes to nearly 250,000 students.

But regional councils were finding it increasingly difficult within limited resources to allocate the necessary funding. By 1990, there was general agreement that the time had come for transfer from local authorities to incorporated status, grant aided by the Scottish Office.

For several college principals, the grass had always appeared greener on the other side and it was an exciting opportunity to become on a par with the higher education principals and their relatively well resourced facilities.

Some key issues had to be tackled. Regional councils adopted different approaches to the delegation of responsibilities. In general, those in the east had been given more freedom and as a result tended to be better prepared to take on the new powers of planning, property management, financial management and staffing. Some councils had also been more generous than others and transitional arrangements had to be put in place to ensure stability in the early years.

Regional councils had made efforts to rationalise curriculum provision, introduce specialisms in particular colleges and avoid excessive competition. As a result of incorporation, there were now more than 40 independent colleges in a relatively small country with the freedom to develop new courses and compete directly.

Overnight, principals had to take on new responsibilities as chief executive, college accounting officer and academic leader but the new boards of management found they did not have the freedom at incorporation to reward them adequately as Government pay policy restricted increases to 1.5 per cent.

Despite that, and early fruitless negotiations with the academic staff unions, the decision to transfer responsibility down to college level was the right one in my view. In essence the first decade of incorporation has been one of "two halves". In the first half the colleges, under the Conservative government, were encouraged to let "a thousand flowers bloom", expand and provide opportunities for more students. But sadly the necessary additional revenue and capital funding was not forthcoming.

Halftime saw new Labour coming into power in 1997 with a commitment "to develop a strategic framework for FE, to maximise access, improve co-ordination between colleges and minimise needless competition".

To help achieve its commitment the Government provided an additional pound;214 million over a three-year period. Of course, while welcome, this really only went some way to compensating for previous underfunding and much of it could only be spent at college level on a plethora of initiatives. One such was the establishment of the Scottish University for Industry, and I have not so far seen much evidence of that adding value to the colleges.

In 1999, colleges were faced with yet new challenges through the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Further Education Funding Council. The jury is still out on whether these changes will provide the quality of learning students deserve. The Parliament has still to deliver the promise made by Henry McLeish in 1999, when he was Minister for Lifelong Learning: "We shall equip the FE sector with the necessary resources to enable the colleges to play a key role at the heart of securing justice and economic development within Scotland."

So far the funding council's support has been administrative rather than inspirational. Colleges seem to be bombarded with circulars and are subject to too many audits. They are still frustrated by the "annuality syndrome" and are unable to plan ahead with any certainty.

It is interesting to see that new Labour has put one of its favourite daughters as chairperson of the funding council. But colleges would like to see Esther Roberton and fellow council members playing a much more proactive role in convincing the Parliament that the sector is still under-resourced.

I find it difficult to reconcile a passion about "making FE accessible to everyone" and "attracting through the college gates those who previously walked on by" with the funding council's policy of rationing the amount of learning (SUMs) it will allow each college to provide each year.

The funding methodology is far too complex and at best is one way of dividing up the cake. Whether or not it is fair and equitable across all the colleges is open to question. So far, little effort and thought seem to have been given to the need to rationalise the number of colleges and cost centres in Scotland. Partnership and collaboration can only go so far as allegiances to one's own centre are so dominant.

As a start, I would suggest the funding council invites Rae Angus, principal of Aberdeen College, to retrieve his forward-looking discussion paper, which he presented several years ago on a future framework for Scottish colleges.

Ministers past and present have made supportive noises about the key role of colleges in reskilling the economy. These are laudable statements but what will be the specific skills required over the next decade? Have the enterprise agencies the expertise and knowledge to predict and identify the skills required by our future workforce?

One aspect is certain: there will now be an exponential growth of e-learning across the Internet. Have Scottish colleges the expertise and vision to take an active part in this globalisation of education?

John Sellars was formerly chief executive of the Further Education Employers' Association.

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