Months of consultation, discussion, negotiations and due diligence came to fruition across Scotland yesterday when the college sector saw the creation of the new Ayrshire College, Glasgow Clyde College, West College Scotland and Fife College.
Legislation underpinning these regional structures was passed just weeks ago after months of political bargaining and debating over scores of amendments.
Hailed as the biggest reform programme of the sector in a generation, it set in stone the restructuring of colleges and their governance, pledged to make access to universities fairer and increase the accountability of those governing the post-16 sector.
The Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill was drafted after the reviews of college and university governance by Professor Russel Griggs and Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski in February last year.
Speaking in parliament just before the bill was passed on 26 June, education secretary Michael Russell said that it would deliver "stronger widening-access provisions, establishing widening access at the heart of what the Scottish funding council and the institutions do". It would also pave the way for national pay bargaining in the college sector and "address the lack of equality on the governing bodies of our post-16 institutions".
On a practical level, the bill defines how college regions and their boards of management are to be structured and set up, outlines new accountability structures and gives ministers significantly greater influence over the sector. It also establishes outcome agreements in the college and university sectors, for the first time tying university funding to institutions' performance on widening access.
Mr Russell said that the bill would "ensure 12 regional chairs for the college sector are appointed in a fair and transparent way". In conclusion, it would "help to deliver a system of post-16 education that is fit for the future and delivers for students and our economic future."
But does the bill really deliver all that it is supposed to? Is it as robust as it might have been? Much of the criticism that followed the passing of the bill focused on the process. Almost 200 amendments were considered, with many long and fierce debates. MSPs were heard to accuse each other of grandstanding and being unwilling to divert from a set course.
Speaking after the bill passed in June, Labour's Neil Findlay said: "This is a bill that was hurried and badly thought out - reflected in the sheer number of amendments brought forward, many by the cabinet secretary himself in an attempt to make it meaningful.
"None of Labour's efforts, including those raised as a result of concerns from third parties, to improve the bill have been accepted, yet all of the SNP's were - so it is their way or no way," Mr Findlay said.
But there was much more significant criticism of the philosophical underpinning of the reforms. When the bill was first published in March, colleges voiced concerns about their autonomy being eroded and the amount of government control that the legislation could lead to. Now, in its amended form, opposition politicians argue that it does little to alleviate those initial fears.
Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur said that the government had failed to make the case that its bill was the only, or even best, way to achieve the ambitions of widening access and improving the quality of post-16 institutions in Scotland.
"The impression has grown over recent months that the desire to have a bill was more important to ministers than what was actually in it. Even more seriously, however, the education secretary's determination to exert ever more control over our universities and colleges is creating serious threats," Mr McArthur said.
For colleges, this meant "pressure to rush through wholesale reforms on the back of pound;34 million cuts to their budgets".
Labour's education spokesman Hugh Henry told parliament: "Staff and students are worried and we are seeing people at each other's throats at a local level, where they see services and courses beginning to drift away. Others are scared to speak out because they fear for their positions, particularly with the mergers. All the while, more and more power is coming into the hands of the minister."
His colleague Neil Findlay used even stronger words: "We're left with a bill that centralises power into the hands of the cabinet secretary, compromises autonomy and accountability and confuses college governance."
But not everyone is as pessimistic. Some in the sector feel that progress was made during the three stages of parliament and that the bill ended up the better for it.
David Belsey, national officer for further and higher education at the EIS, said that the teacher union supported the key aims of the post-16 bill and welcomed its progress to law. The EIS had long supported widening access and welcomed the late amendment to the bill on national bargaining, he added.
But he said that the union would have preferred the bill to provide for greater trade union participation on college governing bodies and regional strategic bodies. And on widening access, he noted that the union had detected "an irony in the government's attempts to widen student access to university while simultaneously reducing the number of students going to college - and focusing on full-time, work-based college courses for 16- to 19-year-olds, which may make student articulation to university more difficult, particularly for part-time and older students".
Colleges Scotland chief executive John Henderson told TESS that there had been "very good progress" and that the organisation had worked successfully with the government to improve the bill. "You expect changes, but we exceeded our expectations," he said.
Mr Henderson said that Colleges Scotland had been concerned about a possible loss of college autonomy under the proposals in the original bill, as well as the ability of colleges to work efficiently and without unnecessary bureaucracy.
Proposals that might have meant that principals were not necessarily members of boards of management and the proposed size of assigned college boards, were also criticised.
Mr Henderson said that the introduction of a code of governance for the college sector; larger boards than originally planned for assigned college boards, principals as board members and the right of assigned colleges to appoint their principals were among the positive changes that had emerged in the three stages of the bill.
"The bill's completion is a significant milestone in getting regionalisation up and running. The success of the bill process for the sector means they will be on a strong footing to meet that challenge," Mr Henderson told TESS.
Despite being disappointed that the bill set in stone "the highest tuition fees in the UK for English, Welsh and Northern Irish students", many felt that their demands had been heard.
"We've worked hard with politicians from all parties to ensure the bill was as strong as possible, and it's been great to see the strong commitment shown to achieving that from across the parliament," said Gordon Maloney, president of NUS Scotland.
"We know that there have at times been disagreements on the ways to achieve what's in the bill, but the final debate hopefully showed we were all agreed on the ends - ensuring student representation at the heart of our institutions and a real focus on improving our poor record of fair access."
THE WAY AHEAD: WHAT THE BILL MEANS FOR COLLEGE STAFF
Aside from the large-scale structural changes in the sector as a whole, college staff at all levels have been concerned about what the bill means for them.
With continuing mergers and new regional colleges being launched, serious concerns over job security, maintaining pay and conditions and the possibility of courses - and therefore staff and students - being moved or cut have been raised.
"As with any form of merger or transfer, there are practical legal implications of the transfer as well as personal concerns of staff about how it will affect them," said Noele McClelland, a partner and head of the employment team at Thorntons law firm in Dundee.
She said the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 protected staff's employment and pay and conditions and prohibited, except in certain circumstances, the harmonisation of terms and conditions, "albeit it is most likely that the merged colleges will want to introduce a single-tier set of terms and conditions for staff".
Ms McClelland said that the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill created a collective bargaining framework for college staff and that this had been welcomed by unions.
But she added that after any merger, reviews of services often resulted in overprovision and overcapacity. "It is therefore highly likely that following integration, there will be a degree of rationalisation resulting in voluntary severances. While the aim of the sector at present is that there should be no compulsory redundancies, it is unclear whether that can be maintained going forward," she said.
David Belsey, national officer for further and higher education at the EIS union, said the bill's provision to enable regional strategic bodies to move staff with courses in multi-college regions reflected the reality within single college regions and, together with the TUPE clauses in the bill, protected current staff. "The government is to be commended for this," he said.
Photo credit: Alamy
Original headline: The bill is passed - so what now for colleges' future?