Colleges should be "set free" from public control and turned into fully independent charities to better respond to the needs of learners, according to a report published today by the thinktank Reform Scotland.
While there may be a perception that colleges are already largely autonomous organisations, this is not the case, the A New Deal for Scotland's Colleges report states.
"Indeed, what little autonomy colleges may have is likely to be eroded further under the proposals in the post-16 education bill," the report says. Greater independence would provide a better deal for students and local communities, it adds.
"As a result, we believe that legislation is needed to remove colleges' status as public bodies and enshrine them as fully independent private charities, which would in turn enter into a contractual relationship with government to deliver certain services."
This move would give the 13 college regions greater freedom to deliver the courses and services most suitable to their communities. "If too much power resides at the centre, it can be difficult for colleges to develop distinctive and innovative approaches," the report states.
The government's ability to provide and direct certain services would not be affected by this change, and the move would place FE colleges on a similar footing to universities, giving them the same legal status.
This would help colleges to not be viewed as a "lesser alternative to universities", which was too often the case, and unfairly so, as they play a vital role in the economy and in society, according to the right-leaning thinktank. "Reform Scotland does not understand why universities should be afforded far greater autonomy and freedom than colleges," the report says.
John Henderson, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, agreed that the college sector "still sometimes faces a challenge in achieving parity of esteem".
"As this report shows, colleges are not a second or lesser option; they offer excellence in teaching, help learners into high-value careers and support industry across Scotland to develop their workforce," he said.
Reform Scotland also called for a simplification of the funding process, and the replacement of the current weighted student unit of measurement system by an individual funding entitlement given to each 16- to 19-year-old, which they could use to attend college or school.
"This could allow pupils to attend college to sit traditional school qualifications such as Highers, or to take up vocational studies, or a mixture of both with the money following the student," Reform Scotland suggested.
Mr Henderson said that in moving to new structures and focusing on needs and outcomes, there was an opportunity to consider funding methods. "We'd hope to see a more transparent system emerge that ensures a fair settlement for the level of learning that colleges deliver."
THE REPORT ALSO RECOMMENDS ...
- Bringing the functions performed by Skills Development Scotland (SDS) back into government. If the government considers that some functions are better carried out by another organisation, it can negotiate with colleges to take these on or allow for part of SDS to become a properly independent body.
- Scrapping the Scottish Funding Council and transferring its functions back to the government. This would mean that funding would come directly from the government and would be more accountable.
- Making the Scottish Qualifications Authority a fully independent charitable body, with its accreditation arm retained as a full part of the Scottish government.
- Making it a condition of grant that universities allow for the articulation of HND and HNC students into the second or third year of a degree course where the subject content is comparable.