To go forward, colleges must look back

8th November 2013 at 00:00

The official opening of Glasgow Kelvin College this week was a proud moment, not just for management and students at the newly merged college but also for education secretary Michael Russell.

One of the last of the big regional colleges to be created as part of a national restructuring, its launch marked a milestone in the ambitious and fast-paced journey the sector has been taking since the publication of Russel Griggs' report on further education governance in January last year.

It has been no mean feat, and college leaders have plenty to be proud of. Huge amounts of energy and commitment were required to overcome significant difficulties and achieve these mergers. New college names have been chosen, colourful new logos have been put up, email addresses adjusted and principals appointed. But anyone who breathed a sigh of relief, thinking this was the end of the struggle, may have done so prematurely.

This week, TESS reports on the difficulties still faced by Edinburgh College, which was formed over a year ago (see page 12). Staff morale and professional relationships have been affected, administrative systems are still not fully functional and progress on agreements between the EIS teaching union and college management has been slow. Change, especially cultural and institutional change, will take time across Scotland.

Mergers may eventually bring efficiencies, but meeting the needs of learners with significantly smaller budgets than only a few years ago will still be anything but easy. On top of this comes the fact that it is now only a matter of months until Scotland's further education colleges are reclassified as public bodies, a change that brings with it more uncertainty.

But perhaps the most crucial dimension to making a success of the future is the least apparent: not forgetting the past. Very many of the newly merged institutions are built on decades of excellence in specific fields and the specialist skills accumulated by the colleges that merged to form them.

This heritage must not be forgotten. The launch event of Glasgow Kelvin College, where musical performances by students dazzled the audience, was a case in point. North Glasgow College was known beyond the borders of the city - and indeed Scotland - for its music and musical performance courses. When cuts were threatened last year, students took to the streets to protest, such was the importance they attached to this provision.

As the colleges establish their new identities, they must not lose sight of where they came from - whether that is the widening access record of John Wheatley College, or the expertise of Aberdeen College in training staff for the oil industry, or the countless other specialisms in the 13 regions. For Scotland's new colleges to live up to their promise, building on the experiences and expertise of the past will be essential.

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