The funding council's bid to rationalise provision in Scotland prefers a small carrot to a big stick, reports Neil Munro
Scotland's 47 further education colleges have been told by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council that they can and should collaborate to a much greater extent.
In its long-awaited paper on the subject, published yesterday (Thursday), the council states: "There is scope for collaboration and rationalisation within the sector in order to better meet needs, to achieve improvements in efficiency and to promote excellence."
The funding council says firmly, however, that it does not intend to impose mergers or any single method of working together. It has rejected the alternatives of simply waiting for proposals to come in from colleges or imposing a blueprint which implies "the council knows best".
In an interview with The TES Scotland, Anne Grindley, its deputy director strategy, said the council wanted an "adult relationship" with the colleges which rejects the approach of "one solution fits all".
The funding council is, however, prepared to take the ultimate step of being "more than a critical friend", as Ms Grindley put it. It may recommend to ministers, who have the final say, that they should force a college to collaborate or merge. But this would only happen, the report states, where a college was "seriously failing and was not acting in the best interests of students, potential students and the wider community".
The council's preferred approach is to offer a small carrot rather than wield a big stick. It intends to open discussions in a "mapping exercise" with colleges on an area basis, in line with the legislative requirement that FE in Scotland should be "adequate and efficient" (see panel). Reviews have already begun in the contrasting areas of Glasgow and the Highlands and Islands. The outcome will be "a mutually agreed action plan".
Ms Grindley says the council accepts hat this "middle way" of involving colleges will take time and may lead to disagreements. The report itself says particular care will have to be taken "where an individual college's financial health is not sound or where a college is preparing a recovery plan.
"The council will need to take careful account of individual situations to ensure that strategic solutions identified as a result of the mapping exercise are implemented successfully and result in a sector that is strengthened overall."
Ms Grindley says the bottom line is that "whatever we do, students must not be unduly disadvantaged".
The credibility of the exercise will depend crucially on having a reliable evidence base, Ms Grindley accepts. This will be particularly relevant where there are disagreements and colleges insist there are no gaps or overlaps in programmes. The evidence will be gleaned from the copious data in the recent study of FE supply and demand and from the funding council's own information on college estates and finances as well as the strategic plans which all colleges submit to the council.
If colleges do decide to embark on a merger, of which there have been no successful cases in Scotland since incorporation, plans still have to be submitted to ministers in the first instance. They will then ask the funding council for its advice which will be based on a judgment of whether the proposals add to the "adequacy and efficiency" of FE in the local area.
The council is at pains to stress that Scotland is not entering an era of "collaboration good, competition bad". The important thing is to get the right balance between "healthy competition and beneficial collaboration".
Ms Grindley said: "We are not suggesting there should be collaboration or rationalisation for its own sake, but whether it is better for Scotland, improves the service to students, adds to quality provision and offers value for money."
Leader, page 18