`It's hard to see the benefit for students of reclassification'
The workload created by Scottish colleges becoming public bodies is "ludicrous", the chief executive of Colleges Scotland has said.
In her first interview since taking up the post last year, Shona Struthers told TESS that the implications of further education institutions being reclassified by the Office for National Statistics were "much wider than anticipated" and had placed an "unbelievable" burden on staff.
The loss of colleges' previous status as private bodies means that any reserves held at the end of the financial year now have to be returned to the government. In recent weeks, colleges have come under fire for transferring almost pound;100 million into arm's-length trusts to avoid this.
Last week, the EIS teaching union said there were "serious questions" about whether this funding was "being put to best use to support learning and teaching across Scotland". However, Ms Struthers said the trusts had been one of the "innovative solutions" found by the sector to cope with the reclassification.
Colleges have also been forced to overhaul their accountancy procedures to comply with the rules of their new status.
Ms Struthers said it was "hard to see the benefit for students" of being reclassified, adding: "There has been a lot of additional burden. It has been quite incredible."
Colleges Scotland was working with the government and the Scottish Funding Council to "see if we can streamline some of the bureaucracy", she said.
Ms Struthers, who trained as a management accountant, got her first experience of the vocational education system in 1995 when she joined the board of Falkirk Women's Technology Centre in Grangemouth, which helps women to gain basic qualifications. "I loved what they did," she said. "They just opened up so many doors."
Ms Struthers joined Colleges Scotland as a policy director in November 2013; just nine months later, she was appointed chief executive. She told TESS her feet had "not touched the ground" since she took up the post last summer: "There was so much to do, and so much to just get right."
As well as trying to provide some stability for the organisation after years of change, Ms Struthers is trying to mould it into a stronger and more effective representative body for the sector. "We are starting to really see a difference and we are getting to a point where we are speaking as a collective," she said.
Aside from the move towards a regional college structure, the biggest challenge facing the sector was to ensure it was "properly invested in for the benefit of the students", Ms Struthers said. "Funding is really tight and some people say there is now not enough money to provide adequate education for students, and on top of that there are issues with student support funding - that is a hot issue and there is no getting away from that."
Colleges were looking for assurances from the Scottish government that no further cuts would be made, she said, adding: "I think it would be devastating for current and future students."
Irrespective of the financial challenges, colleges will also have to adapt to the recommendations of the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce, which include improving college-school partnerships and helping to build vocational routes into the senior phase of secondary schooling.
"When funding got tight, one of the first things that went was school-college partnerships," Ms Struthers said. "The agenda should hopefully make sure that relationship is built on and strengthened."
1970-1988 St Mungo's Primary, Alloa, Clackmannanshire; Dollar Academy, Clackmannanshire; master's in political economy at the University of Glasgow
1988-1995 Management accountant for Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI)
1995-2005 Board member for Falkirk Women's Technology Centre
1995-2005 Finance and communications director for ZenecaAvecia
2007-2013 Director of Snowdon Consulting Ltd, advising on college mergers, policy and governance in the FE sector
2013-June 2014 Director of policy and public affairs at Colleges Scotland
June 2014-date Chief executive of Colleges Scotland