Griggs brings two guarantees: upheaval and uncertainty

24th February 2012 at 00:00
The recommendations are not being well received, but during a time of funding cuts and huge change, it's not hard to see why

The Griggs report on college governance seems to go out of its way to demean the hundreds of people who have served on college boards of management. Principals and boards have not always used the discretion and independence gained by incorporation wisely. Some colleges got into trouble with finances, industrial relations or use of resources which they should have known to avoid. But is this really a sector that needs its management to be turned topsy-turvy at a time of funding cuts?

Griggs' preference for big new regional baronies would be much more convincing if his recommendations did not stop quite so obviously at the boundary of his own patch, Dumfries and Galloway, where he is chair of the college board. He does not tell us why college activity can be better supervised by one unit covering the whole of the Highlands and Islands from Lerwick to Campbeltown, but one unit is not desirable to provide FE from Eyemouth to Stranraer.

A curious aspect of his "regional" agenda is the teeing up of colleges in the Highlands and Islands, and Dumfries and Galloway and of "land-based" provision for takeover by a university or the Scottish Agricultural College. I have enough of a family interest in the Crichton campus to be delighted at the prospect that it could soon be home to the University of the Solway. But Scotland is already over-supplied with graduates who will never find graduate-level jobs. What about a bit more focus on those who achieve least in school and face only the revolving door of low-paid, low- status and chronically-insecure employment?

If you want to catch Griggs' drift, try a word search for "learner" and "student" on his report. The word "learner" goes much more easily with imperatives and prescription. The word "student" has connotations of individual choice or status deemed undesirable in colleges. You have to admire the elevated vacuity of the statement on page 17 of the report that "outcomes for learners should be Scotland-wide, not just community specific". Try that on university principals.

How can adding more remote levels of management "ensure that (the sector's) resource is used primarily for the learner and less at looking after its own structure"? The claim that there will be savings in administration is uncosted and unproven. Perhaps Griggs envisaged - but did not feel able to say - that the new "regional" boards and FE strategic forum will be paid for by a transfer of resources from the Scottish Funding Council's running costs?

Payment for chairs of management boards was debated many times in the past 20 years but not pursued, for the very good reason that it would change the role from one of public service to one of private advantage. Can we assume that no one involved in the review will be seeking paid employment under the new arrangements Griggs recommends?

It looks as if two things have to be assumed for the next few years. First, an extension of central control and political patronage in the college sector. Second, a shift of resources - and in some areas even control of colleges - from vocational education (for less privileged students) to higher-level academic study (and the ever more demanding scions of the professional and middle classes).

So if turning governance on its head is not enough upheaval for the change-crazy, why not muck about with the basis of counting activity for funding as well?

Changing from WSUMs (weighted student units of measurement) to FTEs (full- time equivalents) may change the vocabulary, but not the reality of totting up of course hours for various modes of part-time, distance and supported learning against full-time courses, and how to be fair to higher-cost courses and the needs of disabled students. Recalibrating the tariffs - in the guise of more accurate counting - means more unpredictability in allocation of funding at college and course level, just when stability is needed most to cope with the cuts.

The Scottish Funding Council is to blame if there is a problem of froth, not substance, in colleges' use of their grant funding. It has had ample opportunity, resources and data to tackle this but lacked the will or the skill to do so.

Another resounding harrumph should be reserved for Griggs' enthusiasm for a return to national pay bargaining. This will not be quick or easy to achieve. Who will determine the employer-side mandate in national negotiations when different colleges or regions cannot afford the same as one another, or if the trades unions will not settle for an offer the sector can afford?

I may have missed something here. Perhaps the SNP government is ready to underwrite not just annual increases in the pay bill, but also the costs and consequentials, such as equal pay claims, that will emerge from trying to harmonise differences in individual colleges.

There is a case for more even treatment of staff doing similar jobs and for better reward across the sector. But plant bargaining focuses negotiation on affordability and deployment at the level of delivery of courses and services to students. Big set-piece national negotiations always cost more and turn local problems into national disputes. Just ask local government or the NHS or Audit Scotland.

For 20 years, Scotland has had a community college sector which has been the envy of other parts of the UK. Even if incorporation was a Thatcherite idea brought in by the Major government, it has delivered good, if not perfect, public service throughout Scotland.

The only certainties Griggs offers are upheaval and uncertainty. The colleges and above all their students and staff deserve better.

Tom Kelly was chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges, 1996-2007.

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