Generous dose of Dutch courage
Staff and college leaders in Scotland who feel under constant pressure can take some comfort from the situation in the Netherlands.
For a start, Scotland emerges from a comparison of FE staffing arrangements in the two countries as very generously provided for. There are 43 colleges here serving a population of around five million, and exactly the same number in the Netherlands for a population of 16 million.
Representation of Dutch staff in college decision-making is also relatively weak. The norm would be for no more than 30 per cent of teaching staff to belong to a union, whereas the Educational Institute of Scotland is a strong voice representing most FE lecturers.
Lecturers in the Netherlands are treated as recipients of decisions, rather than participants. A report to the Scottish Funding Council by HMIE states: "Managers will consult with trades unions, but there is no locus in the Dutch system for negotiation. Unions have no influence in strategic matters or matters addressed by senior managers. Typically, their involvement is limited to peripheral or extraneous matters."
These findings emerge from a unique project, set to be the first of many, in which Scottish inspectors and their Dutch equivalent, Inspectie van het Onderwijs, have been collaborating in their work. The aim is to benchmark Scottish colleges against others to get a handle on how well they are doing.
The notion of inspection - or "supervision", as it is called in the Netherlands - is very different in the two countries. The HMIE report notes that the Dutch approach tends to focus on risk, which it suggests is a "deficit" model that does not promote good college practice in the way the inspectorate does in Scotland.
Financial security of institutions forms a large part of Dutch supervision, which HMIE says would only be of concern to them "if the financial situation were impacting negatively on learners".
The Netherlands inspectorate changed its approach only earlier this year, including a much stronger emphasis on lecturers' professional development, as well as learning and teaching.
Its hand appears to have been forced by growing concern at the number of students dropping out of college, which led to the spotlight falling on the quality of teaching. The Dutch Government estimates that 50,000 learners between the ages of 18 and 23 drop out of education, and it aims to get this figure down to 35,000 by next year.
As a result, colleges in the Netherlands are going through some of the stresses and strains which hit a large number of Scottish colleges after incorporation. There is a fresh impetus to improve leadership and self- evaluation.
Dutch colleges are also experiencing the painful need to adjust staffing levels and expertise, which led to so much industrial unrest in Scottish FE. The HMIE report notes: "As in Scotland's colleges a number of years ago, there are still cases of colleges (in the Netherlands) employing too many staff, or staff with expertise that does not match curricular requirements.
"Dutch principals have embarked on a challenging path of making changes, but it can be difficult to gain staff understanding and co-operation in these circumstances."
However, the HMIEIvhO project points to more positive aspects of the FE situation in the Netherlands, the most marked of which is that colleges enjoy strong support from employers. This is partly because the Government provides incentives for employers to provide work placements for full-time students which, the report states, "contrasts significantly with the difficulties that Scottish colleges experience in securing work placements for vocational learners."
Colleges are also well funded by the Dutch Government which provides at least 95 per cent of their income. This means they have not developed their own commercial businesses to the same extent as those in Scotland, where the public funding grant can be as little as 60 per cent in some colleges.
Smiles all round as Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the local MP, signs an agreement between Adam Smith College, of which he is chancellor, and the Open University. The occasion was heavy with symbolism as the link was celebrated in the miners' institute in Lochgelly, birthplace of Jennie Lee, the pivotal figure in the founding of the OU which has been celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
The deal will allow Adam Smith students on Higher National courses to run up credits towards an OU degree from the university's 600-plus courses. Also taking part in the signing ceremony were Craig Thomson, the college principal and Peter Syme, OU director in Scotland.