Can colleges do more with less?

30th September 2011 at 01:00
Slashed budgets in further education have forced principals to make the most dramatic staffing cuts in the public sector over the past year. And this is sure to have an impact on the Government's 16 to 19 agenda, experts warn. Julia Belgutay reports

Colleges in Scotland have seen almost 900 jobs lost in the past year, 50 of them through compulsory redundancies, TESS can reveal.

And with the Finance Secretary's announcement last week that the sector's budget will be slashed by 13.5 per cent over the next three years, significantly more job losses seem inevitable.

Although the sector was told by the SNP Government not to opt for compulsory redundancies, a third of colleges were unable to make the necessary efficiencies without compulsory measures, a survey by Scotland's Colleges has shown.

A total of 6 per cent of the 859 staff made redundant at colleges in the past year lost their jobs through compulsory redundancies, the figures reveal. A further 721 - 84 per cent of the total - took voluntary redundancy, with the remaining 10 per cent made up of staff leaving at the end of their fixed-term contracts or non-replacement of leavers.

Of the 31 establishments included in the survey by Scotland's Colleges, 20 managed to make the necessary efficiencies without compulsory redundancies. But with last week's spending review confirming three further years of decreasing funds, principals warn that substantial savings cannot be achieved in such a short time without seriously compromising staff numbers and quality.

John Spencer, convener of Scotland's Colleges Principals' Convention, also pointed out that colleges have not received additional funding to deliver the Scottish Government's commitment to give all 16 to 19-year-olds a training or education place. He predicted that they would have to turn away other learners and changes to provision would inevitably mean changes to staffing, too - not to mention a knock-on effect on school-college partnerships.

In March this year, Angela Constance, then Minister for Skills and Lifelong Learning, wrote to principals to reinforce Education Secretary Michael Russell's instruction that compulsory redundancies should be avoided in the public sector.

She recognised the challenge colleges faced following the 10 per cent cut to their Government funding in the last Scottish budget, and acknowledged that staffing decisions were ultimately made by each college's board of management, independent of Government.

However, she said the Government's expectations of colleges could not be different from its expectations of other publicly-funded organisations, and it was her "very strong wish that decisions should be clearly informed by the position of ministers".

Ms Constance told college principals: "I hope therefore that I may rely on your board to do everything in its power to plan on the basis that the college will not make staff compulsorily redundant."

But college principals say the budget cuts suffered by the sector - with many colleges seeing their capital budget, as well as their Scottish Funding Council allocation, reduced - were too much to bear. The cuts could not be compensated for simply by making efficiencies; they had to cut staff costs too. In some cases, where all options of voluntary severance schemes had been exhausted, this meant compulsory redundancies.

"Colleges have sought to avoid compulsory redundancy wherever possible and, as a result, 94 per cent of staff reductions were voluntary, or taken through other approaches such as renegotiating hours, not replacing exiting staff or renewing temporary contracts, job shares and retirement," Mr Spencer said.

"The 6 per cent of redundancies which were compulsory occurred where colleges had exhausted viable alternative ways to achieve cost savings, or where the staff themselves sought compulsory redundancy because it was more beneficial to them than a voluntary agreement," he explained.

While the figures from Scotland's Colleges do not identify individual colleges, they nevertheless reveal the wide variation in the type of approaches taken across the sector. At one college, a third of the 47 people who left were made compulsorily redundant; at another it was only seven, while 109 took voluntary redundancy.

Craig Thomson, principal of Adam Smith College in Kirkcaldy, said in addition to the 10 per cent cut to his budget, the college had seen its capital grant reduced by 38 per cent. Although this was supposed to impact only capital spending, the fact that the college still had to maintain its buildings meant the overall budget was adversely hit.

"We have had to take pound;2.5 million out of our annual spend, plus about half a million from the capital grant, so you are looking at about pound;3m having to come out of the Adam Smith budget.

"You can't do that without losing staff, because staff make up 65 to 70 per cent of the cost base of a college," he said.

Adam Smith College has so far been able to avoid compulsory job losses, but has accepted voluntary redundancy applications from just under 50 members of staff.

The Scotland's Colleges figures, which show redundancies for the year to the end of July, provide only a snapshot of the full extent of staff cuts in the college sector. Many colleges reduced their staffing last year in anticipation of the cuts - and some colleges may be required to consider further redundancies once they have been allocated their individual budgets for the next year by the Scottish Funding Council.

The figure of 859 redundancies only includes headcount figures submitted - not statistics for those colleges who collected the data as full-time equivalents - so the total number of redundancies could be closer to 1,100.

Earlier this month, statistics published by the Scottish Government showed employment in the further education sector had dropped by 1,100, from 16,000 to 14,900, between the second quarter of 2010 and the same period in 2011.

The 7.1 per cent decrease in employment was the most dramatic in the public sector, higher than in public sector financial institutions, local government and the NHS, and more than 50 per cent higher than the public sector average.

The EIS, which represents college staff in Scotland, said it condemned "every one of the 50 compulsory redundancies made this year".

David Belsey, EIS national officer for further and higher education, said: "One compulsory redundancy in this strained sector is too many and unnecessary.

"The fact that each college is an independent employer makes staff redeployment virtually impossible, which is another reason for making FE a coherent sector - the Government's post-16 proposals have an opportunity to address this flaw."

Reductions in staff numbers led to fewer employment opportunities for highly-trained lecturing staff, larger class sizes for students and a narrower choice of subject areas available to learners in FE colleges, he said.

The union also expressed concern about the sheer number of voluntary redundancies in the sector in recent months.

"We doubt that many of them are purely `voluntary', since many voluntary redundancies were made by colleges who stated they needed to make job cuts and then began the statutory compulsory redundancy consultation process," said Mr Belsey.

"Many staff were also told that the `voluntary' deals available at the time may not be available next year."

He also warned that those staff left at colleges were facing increased workloads. "In other words, the work being done by the staff that have take `voluntary redundancies' is still being done, and being done by the staff left behind.

"Some colleges are enabling this by merging classes, increasing class sizes, cutting class-contact hours and making greater use of online learning. The EIS believes that all of these can lead to a diminution of teaching quality."

Colleges have seen the number of applications rise year on year due to the combination of a lack of places at university and an increasing need for up-skilling in a difficult jobs market.

The Government has also piled on the pressure, calling on the sector to do "more for less". In his announcement on the reform of post-16 education earlier this month, Michael Russell confirmed the Government's commitment to guaranteeing a place in education or training for every 16 to 19-year- old.

Colleges also provide training for the Government's modern apprenticeships scheme - it has pledged to deliver 25,000 places this year.

Although college principals say their staff are doing their utmost to make sure the student experience is not affected by the reduction in staff numbers, Graeme Kirkpatrick, depute president of NUS Scotland, counters that he is in no doubt that college staff redundancies have a huge effect on students in Scotland.

"When lecturers are cut, courses disappear and students are forced to spend extra money to travel to campuses where the courses are still available. For the courses that aren't cut, redundancies mean bigger classes sizes and less contact time," he said.

Indeed, guidance published by the Scottish Funding Council in July suggested less teaching was necessary now for a course to receive funding - it was 18 teaching credits in previous years, but 16 teaching credits this session.

"But it's not only cuts to lecturers that harm students," Mr Kirkpatrick added. "When support staff levels drop, so does the support that staff provide. Services such as guidance, employment and mental health support are not add-ons that can be eliminated without consequences. These services are key to ensuring there is no further increase in already high dropout rates and that students can move quickly from study into employment."

Scotland's Colleges said about half of those staff made redundant were teaching staff, with the remainder made up of support staff. Recent Government figures show a 28 per cent dropout rate among Scottish college students, and a 12 per cent failure rate.

Stacey Devine, a 24-year-old mother-of-one from Milton of Campsie, experienced first hand the difference support staff can make to attainment rates at college. She consulted guidance staff at Reid Kerr College in Paisley last year when she suffered from depression while studying for an HNC in beauty.

Their support gave her the strength to continue and complete her studies, she said. She has now moved on to do a distance-learning business course at Reid Kerr College while also taking on the post of student president.

"That was the difference between me staying on my course, being able to access a vital service there and then," Ms Devine said. "They gave me the confidence to talk about my personal issues. If support services and careers advisers are cut further, it is going to have a big impact on a lot of students and affect retention rates."

As colleges await their individual allocations of funds for the next year, concerns are growing.

John Spencer warned: "This last budget saw the sector absorb a cut of over 10 per cent while maintaining the same levels of teaching activity and students taught, and avoiding compulsory redundancies. That simply can't be repeated."

Further cuts would have very serious implications for the ability of the sector to deliver and for the quality of education provided, he added. "At a time when skills are so desperately needed to bring about economic recovery, support for colleges in Scotland is vital."

Mr Belsey agreed: "It is unsustainable for further education funding and staff numbers to continue to be cut, especially as student numbers and the expectations on teaching staff continue to rise."

`We just can't run with areas of low demand'

Elmwood College in Cupar, Fife, has had to reduce costs by pound;1.8 million over the past three years. To make this possible, some areas of curricular provision have been axed, such as administration, art, design and multimedia, agriculture and agricultural engineering - all of which were identified as "vulnerable" due to the low number of students.

As a result, the college has reached an agreement with Oatridge College in Broxburn, West Lothian, under which Oatridge has taken on agricultural engineering, while Elmwood has picked up greenkeeping from Oatridge.

Elmwood principal Jim Crooks paid tribute to his "heroic" staff who, although very rigorous in their trade union challenge, had accepted a two- year agreement of no pay increase to help preserve jobs.

However, the college was unable to avoid cutting its staffing costs, and had to make 22 staff voluntarily redundant, most from the curriculum areas abolished, and one member of staff compulsorily redundant.

"We just can't run with areas of low demand," Mr Crooks said.

"We try to avoid compulsory redundancy at all costs, but there are occasions when, although we have a voluntary severance scheme, the payment they would get under voluntary severance is no different to the compulsory settlement. So sometimes it is for practical reasons that people say, `I am not going to go for voluntary redundancy and recognise I am going to have to be made compulsorily redundant.'"

Voluntary severance was in many cases a misnomer, he said, as staff chose to opt for voluntary redundancy out of recognition of the difficult climate the college was operating in. "The voluntary severance does disguise the fact that people would still prefer to be in a job."

This year, the college has increased the number of students it teaches, and has seen record numbers of applicants.

"Elmwood is an innovative, creative and successful college, and, although we fear that further funding cuts may come our way, we have done all that is humanly possible to fulfil our core purpose when faced with considerable financial pressures," Mr Crooks said.

Specialising in core areas of the curriculum was going to be increasingly crucial in future, he added, as well as co-operating closely with neighbouring colleges. Elmwood therefore had committed itself, along with the Scottish Agricultural College and Oatridge, to "investigate a merger as a long-term strategic option for the benefit of land-based education in Scotland".

But to be able to deliver the Government's objective of providing a training place for every young person in Scotland, the college "needed the support of the Government as well," he stressed.

Foreign languages bear the brunt as colleges scale back

Foreign languages is one of the areas hit hardest by cuts. This year, language provision at Forth Valley and Telford colleges was cut completely, leaving only Stevenson College Edinburgh in the east of Scotland with foreign language courses, a member of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching told TESS.

"Forth Valley had a foreign language department; it closed down at the end of last session, as did the one at Telford College," Jordi Pitarch- Marquino said.

"For Forth Valley College, it was definitely the funding cuts - they have had to restructure."

The Spanish and Italian lecturer from Stevenson College Edinburgh explained that student numbers in many foreign language courses had been low in recent years, due to a lack of enthusiasm for foreign languages across the education sector, starting in schools.

With courses being run for profit, even Stevenson has now scaled down its provision of modules, and language-teaching staff were concerned about their future.

"We are working year by year; there is a lot of uncertainty. There is not a long-term strategy of support," he said.

Brigitte Swainson was one of the people affected by the closure of the foreign languages section at Forth Valley College.

Earlier this year, she had to take voluntary redundancy after 13 years of teaching French and Spanish, and is now looking to set up private classes, hoping to attract many of her old students and teach in the community.

"There are no jobs out there. I have been in education too long. I would have to train in something new," she told TESS.

She understands the rationale behind cutting her section.

"Student numbers were low, but once we had them, we kept them. The college told us that they were going to have to make cuts. In our section, they said they had to cut 4.4 posts, which was the entire section," she said.

While she could have applied for other jobs within the college, she did not feel she could "fight for someone else's job".

Moves in the college sector to cut language provision had been mirrored in universities, she said.

The move may prove shortsighted, she fears, as a lack of foreign languages leaves Scottish graduates disadvantaged. Language programmes which were run as part of other courses, such as business or tourism, equipped students with basic skills, such as the ability to write a basic email or answer a phone call, she told TESS.

Original print headline: Something's gotta give. Can colleges do more with less?

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