Academic freedom under threat

2nd November 2007 at 00:00

There is no pleasing everyone - as the Scottish Government found out, when it responded to the Review of Scotland's Colleges. The Scottish Government discovered this week that approbation from the FE sector can be short-lived. Barely had the Association of Scotland's Colleges welcomed the announcement of an additional pound;100 million capital investment for colleges and universities with "vigorous enthusiasm", than it was complaining bitterly about the Government's response to the Review of Scotland's Colleges.

Although Fiona Hyslop, the Education and Lifelong Learning Secretary, has thrown her weight behind most of the proposals in the review - 76 out of 83 - she has also infuriated the colleges.

Howard McKenzie, acting chief executive of the ASC, expressed disappointment and said that "college principals regard many of the recommendations announced today as threatening the academic freedom of Scotland's colleges as well as our status as independent employers by introducing ministerial intervention in areas where it is not needed or welcomed, such as staffing conditions, training and deployment".

The ASC is to seek an urgent meeting with the Government to discuss their "divergence of opinion".

Although Ms Hyslop welcomed the bulk of the RoSCo recommendations, she has set out a whole range of tasks for various FE bodies, such as the ASC and the Scottish Funding Council, to carry out.

The minister also stopped short of supporting the RoSCo proposals where they would cost money, in advance of the Government's spending review which is due to be announced in a fortnight. These include pound;33 million for college staff CPD over three years and pound;15 million to train new lecturers during the same period.

Ms Hyslop's response was less enthusiastic than expected about the study, commissioned by RoSCo, which concluded that, for every pound;1 invested in colleges, there was a return to the economy of pound;3.20. This was based on increasing qualification levels, but the minister said she wanted "a wider range of college activities captured in an economic and social analysis," and she has asked her officials to look again at the effectiveness of public investment in colleges.

The Government's response does not herald major changes in the way colleges are run. It wants "to build confidence in college governance arrangements", which appears to be confined to improving the skills of college board members and spreading good practice. It warns, however: "There should be a culture of `no surprises', and early intervention where necessary. When it looks like things may be going wrong, boards must not hesitate in seeking assistance."

SHORT ON CASH

Fiona Hyslop's announcement of the extra pound;100 million capital investment for colleges and universities, of which FE will receive pound;60 million, was delivered for maximum impact at the SNP's annual conference last week.

Although the cash was welcomed, it falls short of the amount identified by RoSCo, which suggested that pound;150 million a year over three years would have to be forthcoming for FE alone to clear the backlog of improvements required in the college estate as well as in sustaining refurbished campuses.

Once buildings were brought up to standard, the review team suggested, pound;45 million a year would be necessary to maintain them.

The money will not be used to increase funding for day-to-day running costs, one of the key demands in RoSCo, but to carry out improve-ments to buildings and equipment. Seven FE colleges will benefit.

The money has come from unspent cash held by the Treasury and released to the Scottish Government, and Ms Hyslop made clear it was additional to any settlement from the forthcoming spending review.

The money will be made available by Christmas, so work can be completed for the 2008-09 academic year.

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