The Education Minister has moved swiftly to meet the first test of his resolve to reduce "over-vigorous" competition between further education colleges by putting on hold plans affecting his own Cunninghame North constituency.
James Watt, Kilmarnock and Ayr Colleges have been vying with each other to establish an FE presence in North Ayrshire, although the Greenock college has already been endorsed by the local council. North Ayrshire, lacking an FE centre, could have ended up with three if no action was taken to prevent it.
Following his address to the the Association of Scottish Colleges where he ridiculed the prospect of "running the same three courses in Ardrossan", Brian Wilson said that he was arranging for a Scottish Office study to seek "collaborative" solutions.
James Watt plans a Pounds 7 million centre in Kilwinning for 1,500 full-time students and 3,000 part-time students, funded by private investment and European cash. But Mr Wilson says such a substantial development could have an effect on neighbouring colleges and required further investigation.
Mr Wilson's speech signalled his intention to end "intense competition" between colleges driven by the present funding formula which puts a premium on growth in student numbers. "It does not make a lot of sense for two or three colleges to be fighting each other over the same catchment areas in order to generate growth," he said.
The Government wants to see "a strategic framework" based on a sense of partnership and community. No details are available and a consultation paper has not been ruled out. Scottish Office aides stressed there was no "master plan". The FE funding formula is already being revised to take account of the Government's change of direction.
The North Ayrshire saga, described by one participant as "murky", illustrates exactly what the Government wishes to avoid. Ayr College drew up plans for an FE centre to serve the Three Towns area of Saltcoats, Ardrossan and Stevenston, following an invitation from Enterprise Ayrshire.
The college would have put Pounds 500,000 into the Pounds 2.6 million project based in Saltcoats. North Ayrshire would have been expected to contribute Pounds 500,000 with the balance coming from Enterprise Ayrshire and European coffers. But the council declined to support the bid and has refused to release the necessary land.
This has not stopped Kilmarnock College attempting to serve the area. Its bid to open a Pounds 2.5 million centre for 800 students in Stevenston is also dependent on European funding. A further twist is the presence on the Kilmarnock board of Tom Morris, education chairman in North Ayrshire, which preferred James Watt because of the accessible Kilwinning location and the range of courses including a community learning centre in Saltcoats.
"There could be more colleges than Safeways," Frank Burns, principal of Ayr College, said. The college's board has since decided to pull out after being spurned by the council and the local enterprise company.
Bernard Devine, North Ayrshire's chief executive, said he remained confident that the Scottish Office investigation "will come to the same conclusion as we have that the best solution for North Ayrshire is the proposal from James Watt College".
Mr Wilson said he expected competition between colleges in future to be exercised "within sensible parameters". Merger proposals would have to be examined carefully and involve full consultation. The minister also gave notice that he would expect appointments to college boards to be above board. This sparked a discussion which revealed a mixed reception for the requirement on colleges to advertise for board members.
comment, page 21 FE Focus, page 28