Scottish colleges have been paid up to pound;100,000 each to help deal with the extra workload caused by their impending reclassification as public bodies, it has emerged.
The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) made the one-off payments in October to help colleges with the cost and additional work of implementing new accountancy procedures, as well as training staff and meeting legal fees.
But opposition politicians and unions say the pound;1.55 million spent across the sector could have been better invested in courses and college staff, if reclassification by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) had been avoided.
Last week, TESS reported that the Scottish government, unlike its counterparts in England and Wales, had chosen not to take steps to avoid colleges being classed as public bodies ("Colleges go public `to maintain ties'", 13 December).
Adopting public body status from 1 April 2014 will impact on the ability of institutions to accumulate and retain surpluses, because they will not be able to carry them forward from one year to the next. Colleges are expected to try to mitigate this through the use of arm's-length trusts, but fears remain that it may affect long-term planning and create additional layers of bureaucracy.
The funding of pound;50,000 to pound;100,000 is intended to "help manage the transition resulting from reclassification", the SFC said.
John Henderson, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said the efforts involved in reclassifying colleges would be significant and the sector needed to start putting new systems in place and training staff. "These additional funds from the SFC will help support colleges to make this transition successfully, without impacting on funding for delivering teaching and learning," he added.
But a spokesman for the EIS teaching union, which represents lecturers, said that it was important for colleges to be run efficiently and that mergers and regionalisation would create administrative challenges. He added that, for many staff: "An investment of this size in this activity will be difficult to justify at a time when core teaching and learning budgets have been slashed, jobs cut, and the number of courses and student places reduced."
Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur said: "Colleges have been cutting courses, increasing class sizes and reducing flexibility for learners.
"Sadly, instead of using all available resources to address these problems, and improving provision, colleges have been required to divert these extra funds towards administrative changes. Clearly, the SNP government has not been upfront about the true costs of the decision to strengthen ministerial control over colleges."
Mary Scanlon, education and lifelong learning spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, said there was "no doubt that the ONS' reclassification of further education colleges is a significant upheaval, not only in their accounting systems but in the setting up of arm's-length trusts".
"Given that the education secretary has confirmed that there are no benefits to be gained from reclassification, it is somewhat astonishing that the Scottish government, through the funding council, are so willing to part with scarce resources at this time," Ms Scanlon added. "The fallout from ONS reclassification will not only impact on the colleges for one year - this is a major change and it will take several years and considerable time to meet the requirements.
"I have no doubt that the colleges need this money in order to comply with the Scottish government's wishes."
A government spokesperson said: "The Scottish government is working collaboratively with the SFC and colleges to support the sector in mitigating the impacts of reclassification. However, the funding of individual colleges is a matter for the SFC."