In his first interview since taking over Scotland's most troubled FE college, Matt Mochar assures John Cairney it does indeed have a future
Wednesday August 22 is D-day in Clydebank College's battle for survival. Acting principal Matt Mochar hopes it will be a turning point, but the unions claim the price will be their members' jobs.
The college management has rejected a plea by teachers' unions to form a joint campaign in the face of a continuing funding crisis and the board of management will meet on that day to vote on a financial viability plan, which could involve up to 60 redundancies.
The management feels it has little room to manoeuvre. A leaked memo makes clear the Scottish Further Education Funding Council continues to have a "substantial concern" about the college's capacity to implement a recovery plan, already delayed for more than two years to consider objections from the council, which had identified "substantial gaps" in the draft proposals.
The memo continued: "The capacity of Clydebank College to implement its eventual recovery plan, and consequently to secure the college's future, will be a substantial factor in SFEFC's consideration of the strategic options for the provision of FE in the area."
This could be more than just a veiled hint that the funding council wants evidence to show why it should not find others more capable of delivering FE locally.
The council has been looking on with growing alarm as a vacuum developed in the leadership of the college. Hugh Walker, the previous principal, had been on long-term sick leave since last October from what must be one of the most stressful jobs in FE; he announced his retirement on health grounds in April. The college's financial controller had meanwhile departed in January. The chairman of the board of management has also resigned.
The beleaguered college has been fighting a rearguard action for nearly three years to establish a sound financial base from which to relaunch itself as a key partner in the economic development of West Dunbartonshire. In 1998, the college faced severe cash-flow problems and avoided closure only when the Government stepped in with a pound;900,000 loan. Press reports that the college was a candidate for closure because it "specialises in skills for heavy industry" did not help. These were refuted by Mr Mochar, who said the college met the needs of "a diverse client base". It was also embracing new technologies and investing in online learning.
Further financial pressure was piled on when the SFEFC announced that the college's funding for next session would be increased by only 0.8 per cent, leaving a shortfall of pound;1.1 million. This led to the resignation of Stuart Niven, chair of the board of management, in protest at the funding council's decision.
The college responded by drawing up a separate financial viability plan, and this is what is due to go to the board of management on August 22. The teachers' unions, which oppose it, failed in an attempt to postpone the August meeting to allow more time to develop alternative proposals.
Brian McKerrow, branch secretary of the College Lecturers' Association, regretted that the management would not join the unions in campaigning against the college's funding allocation. Mr McKerrow, an elected member of the college board, said: "Management agree that the funding represents a slow-death formula, but will still not join us in making representations to the relevant minister.
"There is a clear case under the Government's social inclusion initiative for the college to be treated favourably, given the fact that 3,600 of our 10,600 students come from the poorest 20 per cent of the Scottish population."
The viability plan includes a possible loss of 50 to 60 academic and support posts. A much slimmer departmental structure would be cut from eight academic sections to three "curriculum centres", and more flexibility in the contracts of the academic staff could involve teaching outwith standard hours.
The management claims that the college's future can only be assured if the board approves the plan.
Mr Mochar said that key elements in the longer term strategy are the development of courses in information technology, tourism, hospitality and other service industries. "We want to invest in areas of potential growth, and market intelligence suggests that tourism and hospitality are in this category. Initiatives such as the pound;60 million Lomond Shores Development and the creation of Loch Lomond National Park offer excellent opportunities."
He pointed out that, although the majority of students come from West Dunbartonshire, a significant number live in Argyll and Bute.
The physical state of the college buildings is another cause for concern and the board is due to consider options before Christmas. These range from a new building on the present site, a major refurbishment or moving to a new building next to the River Clyde. A public-private partnership project has not been ruled out.
Here again the funding council needs to be convinced. The leaked memo states: "Assessing the requirements for a possible new college building for the future in Clydebank has to be set in the context of an appropriate educational strategy for the whole area."
Mr Mochar has no illusions. "We need to get our financial house in order before we get funding from whatever source," he says. But he intends to keep the faith: "Clydebank College has a long tradition of providing high-quality further education to the community and the board of management and the staff are determined that this will continue."