Change on the horizon for colleges

14th June 2013 at 01:00

It felt as though at least the optimistic among college sector staff were beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. They had had a rough year or two. FE staff had endured significant budget cuts with a subsequent loss of jobs and courses, had had to implement regional mergers and endure the accompanying structural changes. On top of this there was the government's post-16 bill, which would increase ministerial control over the sector, and even more planned cuts.

But despite all this, most college staff were heading towards a settled merger date, ensuring appropriate provision for the coming year, and finding innovative ways to make the funding stretch. They were making a go of it.

Then last month came the announcement of the reclassification of the college sector by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

One principal told TESS at a conference in May that he sometimes felt he was "on another planet", with all the significant legislative and structural change, funding cuts and "now this".

The heart of the problem is that colleges will be reclassified as public bodies and all their funds will, from 1 April 2014, count as part of the Scottish government's budget. The exact impact of this is unclear, but it is likely to affect colleges' ability to generate additional income and mean that any opportunity to carry forward profits, including those from commercial ventures, will be very limited - perhaps even non-existent.

This is particularly bad news at a time when college leaders were banking on innovative sources of income - renting out premises, international student fees, etc - to supplement their pared-back funds.

Some colleges leaders also fear for their reserves, which in most cases have been accumulated over a number of years. In a worst-case scenario, the ONS's decision could mean that their reserves will be lost to the government unless they are spent before the end of the financial year.

The government is saying that work is under way to try to find solutions to mitigate the impact of reclassification. Together with sector experts, it is calling for calm as this process continues.

But is that enough when perhaps the main reason the sector seems to have been hit so hard by this news is timing? As we have seen, Scottish FE has had it tough recently.

In truth, despite the optimistic noises, many managers, lecturers and support staff were feeling uncertain and anxious over impending mergers, job security and course provision.

This new degree of worry over funding has come at a time when college staff are attempting to prepare for the next academic year and provide appropriate, high-quality education for many students for whom it is the only route into employment.

More instability, such as that caused by this latest overhaul, is far from ideal.

Julia Belgutay, TESS reporter, julia.belgutay@tess.co.uk.

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