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Let Stow move on argues principal

One Glasgow college is resisting the Scottish FE Funding Council's plans to relocate to its preferred site, reports Neil Munro

Stow College in Glasgow has hit back at suggestions from the Scottish Further Education Funding Council that it is taking a dogmatic view of the future of FE in Glasgow city centre.

Bob McGrory, the college principal, accuses the council of "seriously misrepresenting" its views and of "a failure to understand" its position.

In interviews with The TESS (January 7), funding council leaders insisted they have an "open mind" on whether all the city- centre colleges - the newly-formed Glasgow Metropolitan, Central College of Commerce, Stow and the College of Nautical Studies - should be relocated to the Cathedral Street area where the first two are already, alongside Strathclyde and Glasgow Caledonian universities.

Stow believes, however, that the funding council does not have as open a mind as it claims - and Mr McGrory has already written, as chair of the city centre group of college principals, to Roger McClure, the SFEFC's chief executive, complaining about the council's handling of the issue.

A report to the funding council's meeting in December described Stow's position as "characterised by assertion and challenge rather than discussion of current facts".

Despite its reservations, the college has nonetheless agreed to take part in another round of consultancy work to look at all of the options, although Hugh Blackwood, chair of the board at Stow, says members fear this will be yet another consultant's report which will turn out to be inconclusive.

Stow says it already has commissioned 18 independent consultants' reports over the past two- and-a-half years on the best options - and none points to Cathedral Street.

Mr Blackwood expresses some scepticism about the use of consultants. "They can judge some things, the tangibles such as the business case, the financial attractions, the curriculum, access to the site etc. But there are then a whole raft of intangibles - our clients, our staff, our values.

These are hugely important.

"Are we going to put that at risk to move to Cathedral Street, just to be close to Strathclyde University because there happens to be a site available?" he asks.

Stow is, however, dependent on the funding council to pay for its plans, which makes the current impasse so delicate. Mr Blackwood acknowledges the council is very important, commenting ironically that "relationship management is therefore part of the task".

Mr Blackwood says his board is adamant that the college's interests are best served by moving from its present site in Cowcaddens to Central Quay on the Clyde, a mainstay of Glasgow's regeneration plans. This would cost up to Pounds 25 million, offset by a possible pound;15m from the sale of the college's existing site.

On Central Quay, next to the Glasgow Science Centre, Mr McGrory believes the college would be "rubbing shoulders with the cream of companies in the financial services, media and innovative technologies sectors - the kinds of companies, in other words, which are key drivers in developing the Scottish economy".

Stow is fundamentally at odds with the funding council's view that there is considerable overlap in teaching across the four colleges, which it describes as "the most simplistic reading of data".

Mr McGrory says: "The city centre colleges don't, for the most part, share a common curriculum. When the funding council argues that students from all over Glasgow are prepared to travel to get to Cathedral Street, it overlooks the fact that those colleges located there, and doing a good job, are delivering highly specialised curricula.

"Students who want hospitality, tourism, construction trades, printing and a range of other specialisms might well bypass Stow in pursuit of their chosen vocational interest - but then Stow doesn't offer these options.

"Equally, students pass up many other colleges, including city centre colleges, to study at Stow for many reasons. It's just not a valid comparison."

Mr Blackwood is clear that his board has seen no evidence at all that "four or five colleges crammed into Cathedral Street would be of any advantage whatsoever - indeed, the evidence is that there would be none. The only evidence the funding council has is that the Cathedral Street option is feasible. We agree. The question is whether it is desirable or deliverable."

Mr Blackwood, a consultant civil engineer "with world-class experience" (the board points out), adds: "I report to the board regularly that the SFEFC has an open mind - but I have to say they are becoming increasingly sceptical."

He continues: "Both the council and ourselves share the same vision which is to have world-class further education in the centre of Glasgow fit for the 21st century. It's just that we have different ideas about how to get there. Ours is backed by a business case and is deliverable: theirs is neither."

Stow's management denies that it is taking a narrow view of its own interests, although it points out that the college board's responsibility is only for Stow. Mr Blackwood says it is "aware of the wider FE context", but shows no sign of departing from its conclusion that the concept of an education zone in Cathedral Street, involving further and higher education, is "simplistic and naive".

Mr McGrory says physical proximity does not of itself create a learning zone. "Stow College can already demonstrate very effective working links with the University of Strathclyde and with many other institutions of further and higher education, both in west central Scotland and much further afield.

"It is this success which leads us to conclude that efficient and effective learning opportunities and the development of learning communities are possible without having to be next door to each other - particularly so given the advances in learning technology."

Stow's management is becoming increasingly frustrated at the delays - particularly since its plans for the future have been thwarted once before: the boards at Stow and Glasgow College of Nautical Studies had previously agreed to merge the two institutions.

But following the sudden death of Chris Hunter, the principal of GCNS, and the appointment of Janet Okten as his successor, the plan was shelved. Mr McGrory says there is now a consensus for what is called a "two, one, one" solution - Glasgow Metropolitan and Central College of Commerce to remain on Cathedral Street, Stow to move to Central Quay and GCNS to retain its maritime links on the Clyde.

Mr McGrory claims there is no opposition to these plans from other colleges in Glasgow. Langside and North Glasgow college boards have come out in support, as has Ros Micklem, principal of Cardonald College.

Stow is especially concerned that the delays will mean it could lose out on a move to Central Quay if another developer snaps it up, which means it will be forced to fall back on redeveloping its current site. Approval now could mean Stow would be on the Clyde by the summer of 2008. A move to Cathedral Street is unlikely to bear fruit until 2010-11.

Meanwhile, at stake is up to pound;100m of capital investment from the funding council for the Glasgow FE estate.

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