Rocky road for rural colleges

Oatridge College may lose one of its five 'sector leading and innovative' projects due to lack of funds. Neil Munro reports

Neil Munro

A senior MSP is calling on the Scottish Funding Council to rescue rural colleges, re-igniting a long-standing grievance among them.

Mary Mulligan, a former Labour minister who represents Linlithgow in the Scottish Parliament, is lobbying on behalf of Oatridge College in her West Lothian area. She wants an urgent meeting with the funding council after hearing that Oatridge has struggled for six years because funding has not matched the number of students it has recruited.

Mrs Mulligan also claims that a review of the funding mechanism for countryside colleges, promised two years ago, has been put "on hold". The funding council disputes this (see panel).

David James, the college principal, points out that, despite the fact that Futureskills Scotland has predicted a need for 22,000 new workers in the land-based sector by 2017, there has been no funding for growth. Oatridge, he said, had exceeded student targets year-on-year and, had the funding council matched student numbers, the college should have received an additional Pounds 2 million. It received Pounds 3.2 million from the funding council this year, a 2.4 per cent rise, below the sector average of 4 per cent. This represents 50 per cent of its funding.

Mrs Mulligan said colleges like Oatridge were a local and a national resource. "They provide the kind of skills needed in the jobs market," she said. "I cannot understand why the funding council wouldn't want to fund these kinds of courses and, if there are present shortfalls, they need to be redressed."

Part of Oatridge's case is that it is far from being just a local college: only 38 per cent of its students come from the Edinburgh and Lothians area. Research shows that 95 per cent go straight into jobs or continue their education, which is in line with the FE sector average of 94 per cent.

Oatridge is aggrieved as it recently received a glowing HMIE report, which identified five projects as "sector leading and innovative" - but at least one is facing closure.

Mr James contends that there is not enough labour to meet the demands of rural industries. Lantra, the employer-led skills council for the land-based sector, has reported recruitment difficulties in all 17 industries it serves. These range beyond the traditional farming preserve of rural colleges and cover areas such as animal care, environmental and countryside management, equine studies, farriery, greenkeeping, horticulture, landbased engineering and landscaping.

An SFC spokesperson said the funding council's executive would be happy to meet Mrs Mulligan to discuss this issue. "The council's strategy of targeted growth in recent years has been to areas of low student participation, most recently to the west Highlands, central, and south of Scotland. We have not targeted growth on specific industry sectors but, through our skills committee, we could consider this where a strong enough case has been made.

"The council acknowledges that Oatridge College is doing well in recruiting students. However, each college has a recruitment target and is aware that students they recruit above this target will not be funded by SFC. This is an issue for colleges to manage."

Special treatment

Scotland's rural colleges have long pressed for special treatment because of their higher costs and greater difficulties in recruiting students from scattered catchment areas.

The Scottish Funding Council recognised their problems by including a "rural and remoteness element", Pounds 7 million this year, in the grant it gives to 14 of the 43 colleges. They are not necessarily rural institutions - Inverness College shares in the pot, for example - but they serve students in country areas. Oatridge College received Pounds 256,191 in its grant for 2008-09 in recognition of its "rurality". The funding council says a review of this mechanism has not been put "on hold", as Mary Mulligan claims.

The council suggests she may be referring to the review of how the funding of teaching in FE colleges is carried out. This review is "ongoing" and will consider rural and remoteness issues among a host of other factors.

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