College merger plan is ruffling feathers

17th February 2012 at 00:00
The Griggs review is proposing a major rethink of governance for further education institutions, but many in the sector are yet to be convinced. Julia Belgutay reports

Russel Griggs set himself an ambitious goal when he began his review of college governance just over seven months ago. His aim was to create a sector which was "governed better, had more direction and knew better where it was going and not going", he told TESS at the time.

The current system of governance, left unchanged for two decades, was unfit for purpose, he said. He found huge disparities between colleges in everything from their financial reserves to attainment, size and staff salaries.

And the proposals he submitted to education secretary Michael Russell to achieve this are indeed wide-ranging. If accepted, they will fundamentally change the way in which the sector is structured and run.

The most significant change, and the one the education secretary has already accepted, almost unreservedly, is the move from 41 individual colleges - each with its own board of management, principal, employment policies and curriculum - to 12 college regions.

Each of these should be governed by one regional board, Professor Griggs said, with "the power and control to both receive the funding from government, and decide how to manage what it then controls".

The proposal of a regional structure cannot have come as a surprise to the sector. Speaking to TESS last summer, Professor Griggs spelled out his position - that there were too many colleges; and before Christmas, the government launched a consultation paper on regionalisation.

In anticipation of the changes to come, many colleges have already entered into federation agreements or are currently in negotiations with their neighbours about what regional co- operation might look like. But Griggs' review lays out a much more radical vision for a regionalised sector.

Merger of all institutions within each region is the only way to benefit fully from regionalisation, Professor Griggs concludes. "We are absolutely clear that regionalisation must involve the `merger' (through whatever route) of all the incorporated colleges within that region," states his report.

"Simply put, to achieve the benefits that this regionalisation process brings, there can only be one controlling board for a region with all the funding and power to decide how best to manage the learning access points under its control. This also means that there should be only one employer in the region in terms of staff."

There was no need for colleges to lose their individual identities, he said, and the way regions organised their management structures could vary.

"There is a variety of solutions to the circumstances that pertain in that area," Professor Griggs told TESS. "I think that we ended up giving colleges more power - as long as they are clever about this." They would not be told "how to run their business".

One of the reasons the current system was not working, he stated in his review, was the lack of "clarity and direction given to boards in terms of what is expected of them".

"There hasn't been any real guidance from the centre, or any real and cohesive strategic direction," he told TESS.

He proposes an "FE strategic forum", chaired by the education secretary, and made up of the 12 regional board chairs, as well as representatives of the unions and NUS Scotland, the schools and universities sectors, and the chairs of the Scottish Funding Council and Skills Development Scotland.

Its purpose would be to give direction to the sector; decide which issues should be agreed nationally; and identify areas for college co-operation. The forum would be able to set out "some sort of a Scottish plan" for things like shared services or a national marketing strategy.

It could also, in discussion with the unions, be instrumental in realising another of Professor Griggs' recommendations - a return to national bargaining. As each region had to agree pay and conditions for staff anyway, it made sense to do so on a national level, he said.

There are other areas of governance in which the Griggs review is giving the government much more control.

Chairs could soon require ministerial endorsement before they take up post. When it comes to college finance and capital projects, the change could be even more dramatic, with all reserves which exceed 10 per cent of annual revenue to be returned to the centre "to be used for the betterment of the sector overall"; and total responsibility for the funding of major capital projects in the FE sector to be transferred to the government.

Professor Griggs' aim is for every learner to "get the same opportunities anywhere in Scotland", and for the sector to "be singing from the same hymn sheet".

Principals also face significant change. Under the recommendations, they would no longer be members of college boards: they would attend board meetings and be involved with the board in establishing the strategy they had to deliver, but they could be excluded from meetings if their attendance was deemed inappropriate.

Professor Griggs insisted, however, that he was not changing the hierarchy within colleges by putting the chair and board above the principal. "The board has always been the employer of the principal. We are really only making the position clear," he said.

Across the sector, reactions to his proposals have been mixed. NUS Scotland's depute president, Graeme Kirkpatrick, who was a member of Professor Griggs' advisory group, said he welcomed the recommendations to increase support for college students' associations and the "primary role association presidents will have on the proposed regional boards".

"Increasing the resources available to college students' associations will give students the support and voice they need to thrive and best shape their educational experience," he said.

Mr Kirkpatrick also backed proposals for college reserves to be pooled for use by the entire sector. "Given the size of cuts planned for the sector in the coming years, students must be sure that the funds are available to protect all students' educational experience."

In its initial reaction to the review, the EIS welcomed many of Professor Griggs' recommendations, agreeing that governance structures "are not fit for purpose, that the current college boards of management should be disbanded" and there should be a "return to national bargaining for pay and conditions of service."

However, it reserves judgement for the time being on other issues, especially the proposed level of staff participation on boards and the "balance of power" between the chair, the board and the principal.

While many principals agree that reform is necessary, and say they are supportive of the regionalisation agenda, not all agree that mergers are the only solution. "The whole review has been predicated by the concept of mergers," one principal said. "So my college is going to become a `learning access point'."

Aberdeen College principal Rob Wallen said the concept of a north-east region in itself was "sensible", but Aberdeen and Banff and Buchan College were in agreement that a federation of two separate institutions with shared planning was more beneficial than a merger of the two colleges over 40 miles apart.

While he did not want to criticise the Griggs review, he believed governance at his own college worked well in its current form, and evidence from a number of reports, including HMIE inspections, confirmed that.

Principals have been particularly critical of one recommendation - that college reserves should be returned to the government.

"We really see the centralisation of reserves as a punishment for well-run colleges. It's a kick in the teeth to staff and board members and their hard work," said one principal.

Having the ability to use its own reserves was "quite critical" for his college, said Paul Little, principal of City of Glasgow College. "We have earmarked those for change, as well as our new building. At the end of the day, I would rather spend those reserves accrued in Glasgow for Glasgow's learners than have them siphoned off."

John Henderson, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges, is also worried about what would happen in the transition period between the current and the new structure. And little attention had been paid so far to the assumption in the review that "all regions have parity" - a situation which he said could create inequalities.

"Edinburgh and Glasgow will be hugely larger than some of the others and I am not sure there has been any thought given to the clout these colleges would have," he explained. This could impact upon some colleges' ability to recruit students or attract international interest. He hoped there would be a formal role on the FE strategic forum for Scotland's Colleges to represent the sector.

Professor Griggs' recommendations for more direction from the centre have also caused controversy. "The whole document goes against entrepreneurialism, commercial activity, and self-help," said one principal. "The drive towards centralisation seems to take away from that. In a way, we are going back to pre-incorporation. It seems to be a very centralised, controlled approach."

Although the regional boards would have staff and student representation, many college boards currently have one academic, one support staff member and a student.

One principal told TESS this meant that in a region such as Glasgow, representation could therefore be reduced rather than increased - theoretically from 14 staff and seven student members to only one of each.

It was crucial for principals to be full members of college boards, especially in times of dramatic change, stressed Paul Little.

"I couldn't have done this merger successfully if I hadn't been a member of the board. Principals will be potentially sidelined and disempowered. Potentially, their influence with the board will be diminished; they may end up as more bureaucrats than educational leaders," he said.

"If the voice of the principal, who is the educational leader, is not equal to that of the staff member or the student member, or any other members of that board, you cannot, from my experience, successfully bring about the transformational change that is required from this report."

The elephant in the room, many feel, is the issue of cost and funding. Professor Griggs acknowledges the difficult situation the sector finds itself in, facing a second 10 per cent cut to its teaching grant in two years. However, the purpose of his review was long-term change, and his recommendations had therefore been arrived at independently of the current financial climate.

"In the whole report, there are no figures of what this might cost," said one principal. There was, therefore, no way to assess how costly propositions like the harmonisation of pay and conditions, mergers, and moving to regional boards with paid chairs, would be.

Concerns have also been voiced over the manner in which the review was conducted and is now being taken forward. Professor Griggs sought the support of a leading businessman, an NUS depute president, a principal and a union representative in writing his review. He also consulted, according to the report, a variety of other people from within the sector. But some think this was not enough for a review which could change the sector for ever.

Not enough principals and chairs were consulted, one principal told TESS, and the consultation following publication is too short.

"Professor Griggs struck me as being earnest and, at the time, listening," added Paul Little. "However, he struck me as having some settled views. At times there was the air of a Blue Peter approach - here is one I prepared earlier."

Michael Russell wrote to the sector last week, asking for responses to the review by 24 February. Now, one week before the deadline, principals are awaiting his decisions with baited breath.

"We are up for change, but if this goes ahead, it is a high-risk change - destroying what we currently have and changing to something that is untested," said one.

"I suspect it is going ahead, but I hope to God it isn't."

27,600 - estimated number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students in the proposed Glasgow college region

14,120 - estimated number of FTE students in the proposed Edinburgh college region

1,879 - estimated number of FTE students in the proposed Dumfries and Galloway region

pound;105.5M - estimated total reserves of the Glasgow region

pound;418,000 - total reserves of Borders College, which would not be merging with other colleges under the Griggs proposals

(Source: Griggs review of college governance)

pound;15M - Scottish government's transformation fund to support regionalisation


Professor Russel Griggs

Born: July 1948 in Edinburgh

Education: Studied commerce at Heriot-Watt University. Now honorary professor of marketing at Glasgow University

Career: Chair of the board at Dumfries and Galloway College, and previously chair of the auditing committee for the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland

- Awarded an OBE for services to Scottish business in 2008 and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts

- Has held posts in the private, public and charities sector, including director of Scottish Enterprise and chairman of governors at the Institute of Occupational Medicine.

- Was project director of the Scottish pavilion at the Millennium Epcot Project in Disneyworld.

Original headline: College merger plan is ruffling feathers across the regions

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