FE review of the year - Recession, a surge in applicants and new investment in colleges

1st January 2010 at 00:00
The economic downturn had a hand in what turned out to be a bumper year for further education

The year in further education was dominated by the recession - which, perversely, made for a success story in the colleges.

The positive scene was set in January by HMIE in Improving Scottish Education, which gave FE the strongest endorsement of any sector in its "state-of-the-nation" report on Scottish education. Inspections during 2005-08 had shown that 99 per cent of grades for learning and teaching were "good" or "very good", and there were problems with leadership in only three colleges over the four-year period.

Graham Donaldson, the head of the inspectorate, said FE in Scotland was "dynamic and responsive and had a lot to be proud of". His colleague, Iain MacRobert, made clear the contrast with schools: the college curriculum, he said, was already "flexible, accessible and relevant" and was "hard to fault".

HMIE's "confidence ratings" of colleges were confirmed in another report on quality and standards, covering 2004-08. It endorsed learning and teaching in all 43 colleges, student progress and achievement in 41, and management in 40. Inspections over those five years found 182 examples of "sector-leading and innovative practice".

The other good news of the year was the protection afforded to colleges' charitable status, worth pound;50 million in income from rate and rent rebates. New Parliamentary legislation exempted colleges from the charity rules that bar ministers from intervening in the work of charities.

A sourer note was struck by Universities Scotland, however. It concluded in its February report, What wasWhat next?, that there should be more investment in academic than in vocational qualifications.

It said the jobs market was "saturated" with people who have sub-degree qualifications such as Higher National diplomas and certificates. If they were taken out of the equation, the proportion of the Scottish workforce with degrees stands at about 20 per cent.

The same month saw the first of several ministerial financial commitments, which indicated that the Government needed the colleges as much as the colleges needed the Government. A pound;7 million injection led the way in order to help colleges respond to the skills needs of redundant employees.

In the course of the year, former Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop - seen as a strong supporter of the college sector - made a string of announcements which poured money into FE:

- pound;20.5 million in accelerated capital spending for colleges and universities to bring forward building projects for 2008-10;

- pound;7 million to help colleges respond to redundancies;

- pound;6.9 million extra for FE student bursaries, childcare and discretionary funding, on top of two emergency injections for students: support of pound;10 million at the start of the year and pound;11.9 million last month;

- pound;28 million for FE to create 3,000 more college places and improve facilities;

- pound;30 million package of student grants and loans.

The Scottish Funding Council made clear, however, that it wants more bang for its bucks - in the form of FE courses that help the economy. John McClelland, chair of the SFC, said it would act "to ensure college activities are focused on the economy".

The pressure on college places, which necessitated the Government's various subventions, was the result of the huge surge in demand from students as the recession deepened. As first reported in The TESS on April 24, some colleges were experiencing a marked rise in applications from 25- to 49-year-olds - up 65 per cent in the case of Cardonald College in Glasgow.

Another surge came in the form of a flurry of government announcements throughout the year about increases in modern apprenticeship places. Although these were partly fuelled by the recession, ministers are also committed to the policy because of a budget deal with Labour last year, under which they undertook to fund another 7,800 apprentices at a cost of pound;16 million. This represents a 73 per cent increase on the previous year and there remain doubts about whether it can be achieved.

As the cash poured in, leading college figures such as Craig Thomson, principal of Adam Smith College, drew attention to how it might be used. He wanted a less fragmented approach to skills training, involving seamless transition points from apprenticeships to degrees. And Willy Roe, chair of Skills Development Scotland, joined the debate by warning of a skills shortage: "Scotland is going to be short of people, not short of jobs."

Meanwhile in Glasgow, the longest-running saga in Scottish FE continued, as plans were rolled out to unite in wedlock three of Glasgow's city- centre colleges while the fourth, Stow, declined to make any marriage vows. The least unexpected news came towards the end of the year when Paul Little, principal of Glasgow's Central College, was named to take charge of the new super-college.

The M-word was also on the agenda in Edinburgh where the capital's three FE colleges appointed consultants to come up with plans for closer collaboration.

Finally, it is worth noting what did not happen in 2009: there was hardly any industrial action on the Scottish FE scene, with the exceptions of local skirmishes in Ayr and James Watt colleges.

SO FAREWELL THEN .

- Rae Angus, principal of Aberdeen College (retired)

- Ray Harris, principal of Edinburgh's Telford College (retired)

- Howard McKenzie, principal of Jewel and Esk College in Edinburgh and Dalkeith, as well as acting chief executive of Scotland's Colleges (retired)

- Chris Travis, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges (resigned).

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