Neil Munro finds familiarity and contempt at the CLA's annual conference
THE main lecturers' union has lost no time in voicing its "great concern" at the planned mergers of further education colleges.
The College Lecturers' Association fears that the proposed reduction in the number of Glasgow FE colleges from 10 to five, recommended in a report by consultants KPMG, could herald the shape of things to come in the rest of the country.
The Scottish Further Education Funding Council, which commissioned the report along with the Glasgow Colleges Group, has been at pains to insist that no mergers will take place without the consent of the colleges involved.
But CLA delegates approved an emergency motion which stipulates that this must include staff support. The only criterion for any merger should be educational, the motion stated.
Alan Ferguson of Clydebank College said the proposals represented "a national attack on the whole of FE which requires a national response". Industrial action should not be ruled out.
Jim O'Donovan of Glasgow College of Commerce, the new CLA vice-president, said the only arguments in favour of closures in the report appeared to be "how horrendous Glasgow is" in terms of participation in learning. "That should point to more FE buildings in Glasgow not fewer," Mr O'Donovan said.
The argument that 10 colleges were too many did not convince Malcolm Wilson of Langside College. He said they accounted for a quarter of FE provision in Scotland while the remaining three-quarters was provided by as many as 37 colleges.
Marian Healy, EIS further and higher education officer, was more measured. She welcomed the assurance in the KPMG report that the exercise was not about redundancies but "making FE in Glasgow more attractive and therefore more secure for the future".
But she added: "What we will be pressing for now is to be involved so we can influence these plans as they progress. That will help us allay the fears of our members so we are not just reacting all the time."
Meanwhile it became clear this week that the process of coming to a conclusion on the KPMG proposals, which include three other options for change as well as the five-college model, will be a lengthy one.
Tom Wilson, principal of Glasgow College of Building and Printing, said he was sure college boards would want to consult not only staff and students but key stakeholders. In his case this will involve groups such as the Construction Industry Training Board, the Printer Employers' Federation and Glasgow aledonian University.
Professor Wilson, who chaired the Glasgow Colleges Group, said that the report will have come as no surprise to colleges but they would be taking a "cautious" approach.
He was clearly mindful of a previous attempt to merge his own college with Glasgow College of Food Technology which collapsed in 1998 after other colleges protested at the knock-on effects and the then education minister vetoed the move.
Attempts to merge Clydebank and Anniesland colleges at the time of a change of principal also came to nothing.
The merger of the three neighbouring colleges in Glasgow's "college canyon" of Cathedral Street - the colleges of Building and Printing, Food Technology and Commerce - is at the heart of the KPMG report and forms the basis of all four options for change.
But the seven colleges just outside Glasgow - Bell, Coatbridge, Clydebank, Cumbernauld, Motherwell, Reid Kerr and South Lanarkshire - do not feature although they are bound to be affected by any changes. The report recognises their contribution to education in Glasgow along with that of Glasgow's three universities and Paisley University, but does no more than that.
This was described as "in the box thinking" by Graeme Hyslop, principal of Langside College. Mr Hyslop would have preferred to see links outside FE being explored such as those to social inclusion partnerships and universities. He thought the report was "a solid piece of work" none the less.
If colleges are to be persuaded to invest time and energy in considering mergers, they will expect some reassurances that they will not be wasting their time. They will be interested in particular to know what criteria will be used to justify mergers and in whether there are to be any financial inducements.
"All the evidence from south of the border is that mergers cost," Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, says.
The funding council is keen to encourage greater collaboration and will offer help to colleges considering merger. But it does not intend to impose solutions. Its approach will be to conduct "mapping exercises" in the different regions of Scotland along with the colleges in the hope they will lead to "mutually agreed action plans".
If the Glasgow proposals harden into firm merger plans, they will have to be submitted to ministers for approval. They will in turn seek advice from the funding council which will base its judgment on whether merger will add to the "adequacy and efficiency" of FE in the local area.