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Recovery plan for college in decline

Staff redundancies and the axing of inefficient courses are proposed to tackle pound;6.8m debt

Decisions taken by the previous management of James Watt College in Greenock to increase staffing are one of the "root causes" of the near-terminal spiral of decline which has led the management to warn of its possible closure (TESS, January 19).

This will reinforce the claims by union leaders that their members will have to pay the price for "ineffective management". A recovery plan approved by the board, on which consultations are now being held, is proposing up to 48 redundancies to tackle debts which totalled pound;6.8 million last July.

Redundancies, voluntary or compulsory, will have to be completed by July 31, the deadline for the board of management to be able to sign off the 2005-06 accounts for the college as a going concern.

The report for the board, prepared by Graham Clark, the interim principal, notes that the total staffing complement at the college has risen from 649 full-time posts in 2001-02 to 733 by 2004-05. While there has been some "restructuring" since then, only one teaching post has been cut.

These increases occurred at a time when most other colleges have been living within their means, Dr Clark commented.

Contrasting James Watt with a college of comparable size, Aberdeen, his report shows that there are 14 senior management posts at the Greenock college, accounting for 5 per cent of staff costs, but only seven senior posts in Aberdeen, accounting for 3.2 per cent of staff costs. Dr Clark aims to slash the number of "directorate" posts to five.

James Watt lecturers have enjoyed salaries of up to 9 per cent above the norm for the FE sector, according to the report commissioned by the Scottish Funding Council from its FE development directorate (Fedd), which the council is discussing today.

But Dr Clark's report says the salaries have not been matched by productivity. The amount of teaching done per member of academic staff may actually have fallen to below the average for 2005-06.

If the college fell into line with other larger colleges, its staffing budget would be pound;2.5m less than it is. The current staffing costs at Aberdeen College are pound;3.5m less than those of James Watt.

Dr Clark said the college would discuss pay levels with the unions in due course, but gave notice that they might have to be brought into line with the rest of the sector.

The proposed recovery plan also points out that the college cannot be turned around simply by generating more income. This is because the underlying costs of the college's core activities exceed the grant-in-aid it receives for them from the funding council, and neither the council nor the college's external auditors would accept projections of increased income as part of the immediate solution.

Dr Clark acknowledged there would be knock-on effects for the way courses were delivered. He proposed eliminating "non-performing" courses, which recruit below their targets and are inefficient because they require too many staff to teach them.

The Fedd report suggests the college should put more effort into "maximising student intakes and improving the quality of a reduced portfolio of successful courses".

Dr Clark also envisages stepping up open learning in the college, from less than 2 per cent of course units to a possible 15-20 per cent.

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