Teething trouble at merged colleges

Reports highlight problems at new institutions six months in

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The merger process in Scottish colleges has created increased workload pressures on staff who have been left to cope after the departure of experienced colleagues, according to reports by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). A Freedom of Information request by TESS revealed that visits by the SFC to six new colleges six to nine months after the mergers had taken place uncovered a series of common difficulties.

While significant progress has been made, important elements of the mergers are still to be fully implemented, according to the reports, which were sent to college principals in the spring.

Additional workload pressure on staff was one of the major concerns highlighted in several colleges, partly caused by the departure of experienced staff through severance schemes and the requirements of curriculum restructuring.

The SFC urged institutions to remain aware of the pressures on teaching and support staff "who are continuing to fill the gaps until there is certainty on the structure", and to work with teaching unions.

The reports - released to TESS earlier this month - were sent to the principals of Ayrshire College, Fife College, Glasgow Clyde College, Glasgow Kelvin College, North East Scotland College and West College Scotland, all of which were created through mergers last year.

They also confirm that harmonising pay and conditions and bringing together different groups of staff remain challenging and are causing concern among employees.

At Glasgow Clyde College, for example, "many staff acknowledged that difficulties related to achieving alignment of terms and conditions had impacted on finalising staff structure, which has, in turn, affected the merger process". According to the chair of the board, the alignment of terms and conditions was "the number one risk to the success of the merger".

And at North East Scotland College, there was "a perception in Fraserburgh that the new management structure was set up to accommodate Aberdeen College staff and that very few Banff and Buchan College staff got senior positions in the new college".

The legacy of the former institutions was highlighted as another issue that had slowed progress in a number of regions. In Fife, both the senior management team and the board of management felt "they have been hindered by the legacy issues and frustrated by the resulting slower than planned pace of change".

Legacy issues were also a concern for Glasgow Kelvin College, which was confronted with a "poorer than expected inherited financial position", while losing the identity of the former James Watt College had proved challenging for West College Scotland in its first six months of operation.

However, progress and a number of positive observations were also noted across Scotland. The learning experience of students at various institutions had barely been affected by the mergers because of the commitment of college staff, the SFC stressed.

At West College Scotland, for example, the courses offered were "rationalised without reducing provision". The report adds: "There are clearer course options for students, as well as clearer progression routes and better employment links."

It was also noted that the mergers would deliver financial efficiencies, which was one of the reasons for the government's drive to establish larger, regional colleges.

Effective leadership and governance were complimented, with the SFC noting that former employees of Adam Smith College in Fife were "impressed" by their new principal and senior management team.

Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said that merging two or three organisations was "a complex process". She added: "Having gone through these significant structural changes, we are now focusing on securing additional funding for the sector so that our member colleges can deliver their Wood Commission commitments for the benefit of learners and the wider economy of Scotland."

A spokesperson for the Scottish Funding Council said: "These mergers are going well. Six months after the mergers actually took effect is early in the implementation. Colleges have not fully completed their restructuring and sometimes won't have bedded in new systems - these are the things we will want to see completed well by the time we do the full evaluations two years after merger."

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