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Scotland may lead way to freedom

Law change could bring colleges closer to independence, reports Joseph Lee

Ministers are set to give up their powers to intervene in colleges in Scotland, fuelling claims from FE institutions south of the border for increased independence.

Pressure from changes in the charities law means the Scottish minister for FE is expected to announce the decision imminently. Colleges say it will bring them closer to the independence enjoyed by universities.

At the moment, the Scottish executive can write to colleges to compel them to adopt government policies, as it has done over Education Maintenance Allowance payments to students.

That is set to end, and Government will only be able to influence colleges by threatening to withdraw some of their funding.

However, the Scottish Parliament will retain the power to close colleges or dismiss their board of governors in extreme cases.

A change in the charity law, which means that charities cannot be controlled by government, prompted the decision.

The minister for FE, Nicol Stephen, was faced with the choice either to exempt colleges from this part of the Charities Act, or to relinquish powers. Scottish FE organisations have been told the decision is expected next week. A source said the minister would be giving up the powers to direct colleges.

Colleges say their priority was to retain charitable status, and that they have not campaigned for this extra independence.

Tom Kelly, chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said:

"We never asked for it. We didn't need to. Our position was to retain charitable status by the most direct route.

"But it does bring us closer to the freedoms that universities have. Such powers don't exist in relation to them."

He said that colleges would still be accountable to government. "It doesn't mean ministers don't set priorities - they do," Mr Kelly said.

"But they are reserve powers. They are to be called upon were a situation to arise. They have only been used for things such as bursaries - that's positive. It's something on which we agree."

In England, the Education Secretary does not have the same powers to intervene in colleges, although she can make appointments to boards of governors.

But the Association of Colleges is consulting members about whether it should campaign for more self-regulation, to remove the burden of the 23 bodies which oversee colleges.

Julian Gravatt, funding director of the AoC, said the expected increase in independence for Scottish colleges was interesting. "It is one of the advantages of having devolution in education that it's possible for parts of the UK to learn from each other," he said.

Others in FE in Scotland are concerned that the decision should not be taken without consultation or open debate, after the late addition to the new Charities Act.

A spokesman for the Educational Institute of Scotland, which represents lecturers, said: "It raised questions about the accountability of how public funds are spent. If the minister does relinquish these powers it will cause us great concern. The powers are not used often, but they are a safeguard."

A Scottish executive spokeswoman said that ministers were considering what action to take to allow colleges to pass the new Act's independence test.

"Any action taken is likely to be subject to parliamentary procedure and we cannot pre-empt the parliamentary process," she said.

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