Merger points the way forward for FE

1st March 2013 at 00:00
An amalgamation of Edinburgh's three further education colleges was set in motion prior to a broader national plan to `regionalise' the sector. Julia Belgutay looks at the lessons that might be learned from an institution that blazed the trail

The idea of a merger of Edinburgh's FE colleges was born long before education secretary Michael Russell announced his plans for an all- encompassing reform of the further education sector.

In fact, discussions began shortly after Brian Lister was appointed principal of Stevenson in 2008.

Almost five years down the road, Mandy Exley has been the principal of the newly merged Edinburgh College - created out of Telford, Jewel and Esk, and Stevenson colleges - for less than six months. The college is at the forefront of developments engulfing the whole sector, with mergers continuing in a number of regions, including Glasgow, Aberdeenshire, Fife, Tayside, Ayrshire and Lanarkshire. And despite the fact that plans for merger were made prior to the regionalisation agenda taking off and before the brunt of the funding cuts were felt by the sector, lessons can be learned by the other regions from the successes - and challenges - of the Edinburgh story.

Merging the three institutions has been no mean feat. According to the merger business case, the process entailed a significant reduction of senior management posts, a loss of 237 jobs in total, while maintaining a jobs guarantee until summer 2014.

Maintaining that political commitment, made by education ministers prior to the regionalisation agenda, was problematic, especially at senior management level, according to Ian McKay, regional lead.

"When you merge, there are going to be people who are left with no job. We have guaranteed no redundancies, and offered a package to move on. With the best will in the world, just hanging on with no future can't be the best outcome for those individuals."

The number of senior managers has now been reduced to six, he told TESS, and the college is "moving to the next tier down" and beginning to restructure middle management.

Moving forward at the required pace in an environment of cuts to the teaching budget and changes to the funding of colleges was another challenge - and one all merging colleges in Scotland would face - added Ms Exley, former principal of Jewel and Esk College.

"What has made it difficult for us is the pace of change and the complexity," she said. But the new budget settlement, which assigned pound;61 million more than expected to colleges over the next two years, would give them "a bit more time to make the changes in a more consultative and measured way".

FE consultant Roger Mullin told TESS that in his personal view, the Edinburgh merger, despite taking place so early in the process, offered some useful lessons that others were learning from.

"In particular, it wasn't helpful that the principal designate was appointed so near to the vesting date. This meant that she wasn't shaping the institution she was to lead, and was left to pick up a range of loose ends. It also meant that it was only after the merger that she could, along with her chair and board, begin to shape the institution's structures and culture."

Ms Exley was appointed in September last year, only weeks before the new college was officially launched.

Her appointment was delayed, in part, to allow regional lead Ian McKay to be involved - but he was only appointed by the education secretary in July. "He, too, was having to pick up issues he hadn't influenced," Mr Mullin said.

"In most other mergers, these lessons have been taken on board with an earlier appointment of the principal designate and in some cases the regional leads being invited to chair the partnership boards which oversee the mergers."

Nevertheless, a lot of progress has been made in Edinburgh. The new college was officially launched on time on 1 October last year and the first steps have been taken to refocus the curriculum. Although the principal stressed that these were mostly about finding a "uniform way of naming courses", some staff already see the benefits of this.

Head of creative industries Jon Buglass said each campus had its own strength, but "one of the most positive things we would all agree on is we have said `What is this course?' and `What are we trying to get students to be able to do?'."

A strong student association has been established and is involved at all levels of governance, and work has started on a recognition agreement with staff and the harmonisation of terms and conditions.

The college has also attempted to create a different culture for the new institution, with events being held regularly for all staff and visible branding across campuses and departments.

It was important to establish the brand early, Ms Exley stressed. This was not about losing the strengths of the individual institutions, but about a need to "look forward".

Carolyn Murray, interim director of organisational development and communications, said her role was developed out of a belief "that the culture of the organisation is integrally important".

The process of getting staff on board started long before the vesting date, with surveys asking people how they felt about the merger process. Staff were also involved in creating the job specifications for senior management posts, and sat on the presentation panel for prospective candidates.

But this has had only mixed success, at best. A survey carried out prior to merger had revealed "a real mix" of attitudes to the changes, Ms Murray said.

"Some people were very up for it and have been working very collaboratively and saw it as a great opportunity. Very naturally, some people were very apprehensive, saw areas of overlap and wondered what that would mean for them."

Louise McGurk, area organiser for Unison, which represents support staff, said morale was "relatively low" with its members feeling "undervalued" and fearing that they might be adversely affected by a drive to protect frontline teaching.

EIS branch convener Mike Cowley said: "Staff expertise has not been channelled into the process. There is a lot of disquiet about the curriculum."

John Martin, student association president at Edinburgh College, added: "Security and morale at the college is at rock bottom and everybody senses that."

Part of the anxiety, all involved agree, has been down to a lack of effective communication. Staff and students felt that they were not being consulted and decisions were being made without their knowledge.

"Students come to us saying, `Our lecturer is saying they don't know if the course is happening'," Mr Martin said.

Senior managers agree that effective communication with staff and students remains a challenge, but they continue to try a variety of avenues to reach everyone involved with the college.

"That's the really tough bit. I don't think we are anywhere near there yet," Ms Exley said. "This is a relentless pursuit. We have a belief in what it is we are doing and in the message we put out. We have to rigorously enforce that. Staff will continually tell us that none of the measures we use are enough."

An update is sent to all staff every 10 days, and staff meetings at all levels take place weekly. Student representatives are involved at all levels, but attendance at curriculum area meetings has been patchy, Mr Martin admits. He says this is mostly down to students not finding out about the meetings, not being invited, or not feeling invited.

A serious problem for staff and students has been to distinguish which of the changes are down to the merger, and which to government cuts to colleges' budgets. This is likely to be an issue for all involved in the college sector across Scotland as they go through a similar process.

There have also been some instances in which additional anxiety has been caused by IT problems or misinformation. Concerns were raised, for example, when it seemed that some courses had been omitted from the official A-Z list of courses on the new website. Despite this being down to an IT problem, which has largely been resolved, Ms Exley says she understands why staff were worried when they were not able to find their courses.

"They see this monumental amount of change going on, they see the political discussion, and a world in which 41 institutions are being reduced to 13 - so what does that mean? It must mean we are doing less. I understand where people's concerns are coming from."

In December, student representatives confronted Michael Russell about contact hours on their courses being cut in favour of online learning, and students being unable to complete courses because they had been cut. The filmed exchange was subsequently uploaded to YouTube and received a number of "hits".

Ms Exley said the reduction in contact hours for some students was down to those at Stevenson traditionally having more contact hours than at the other colleges, and the number being unified across the whole college. "The Granton model was the one we took," she said.

The allegations of courses being cut related to a decision made at Telford College, prior to merger, not to run some of their courses, which was "made too late". While some courses were reinstated, some were not, she added.

Maintaining the positive student experience at the college was the crucial indicator for the college, she said. "Quality is the measure we keep our eye on."

The college is currently in the process of agreeing a common set of working hours, contact time and pay, and this was proving to be a complicated and slow process.

Ian McKay said: "The pay structures were the historic product of three different colleges - we need one structure for one future."

One of the issues, he believed, was "how slow the trade unions - particularly the teaching unions - have been to adapt to the new situation".

"We need them to represent their members but instead they have become paralysed by cuts and losing people. None of us likes the situation, but you have to do the best for your members, not turn away and put your fingers in your ears," said Mr McKay, who, as a former assistant secretary of the EIS, knows what it's like to negotiate on that side of the table.

"The most important part is harmonisation. We should be further in. It is not brain surgery - everybody knows it has to happen. For the benefit of everyone we have to make that progress."

Ms McGurk said Unison was keen to work with management and was aiming to ensure a "levelling up, not a levelling down" of conditions. But Mike Cowley said EIS members were unhappy with the number of hours set aside for EIS reps to carry out union business proposed in the recognition agreement, and an attempt by the college to remove the "status quo clause", protecting staff from unilateral changes to their conditions by the college.

Major changes to the curriculum have not yet taken place, but are planned for 2014-15. "We need to work out at some point: what is the college for? We need a big conversation with our community, and we haven't started talking yet," Mr McKay said.

Next year will see the structuring of provision into "centres for excellence" to enable the best use of resources and staff.

But staff and students fear that moving provision across the Scottish capital will narrow down local provision and lead to students, especially young school-leavers, looking for alternatives and not applying to the college.

Mr Martin said student fears related to extra cost and the time spent travelling to classes. "Some students could be spending 16 hours a week travelling to their course. That is a part-time job that they could be using to support themselves."

Construction courses and access courses in engineering will be among the courses moving from the Midlothian campus to Granton, and EIS rep Dan Holland said students from Midlothian would not want to make that "27-mile round trip".

"From Dalkeith, for example, it would be about 1.5 hours each way by public transport. Students don't want to come to their regional college; they want to come to their local college."

Stephen Phair, 22, from Dalkeith, is studying towards an NC (higher) in electrical engineering. He told TESS he was concerned about the impact on the local community that moving provision would have.

"We have four big high schools and only one back-up plan" for those students unable or unwilling to continue their education at school, he said. The only remaining access-level course at Midlothian was going to be childcare - not traditionally a popular choice with young male school- leavers.

Others, however, see the opportunities in the new centres. Councillor Jim Bryant, cabinet member for economic development at Midlothian Council, said: "While this looks as though it means some construction-related courses moving to Granton, other engineering courses linked to the oil and gas industry and the renewable energy sector will be coming to Midlothian."

In recent weeks, the EIS has entered into dispute procedures with the college over pay, demanding a 4.6 per cent increase and threatening industrial action.

"Pay has become a lightning rod," Mr Cowley said. "We are not prepared to concede to management. We have already seen a decline in our pay and have an untenable workload."

Mr McKay said: "What the public sees is an organised group of professionals earning well in excess of pound;30K, facing students in classes for 22 hours per week and having 12 weeks' holidays. Is that a reasonable demand when you are in a situation where some of your number are going to be going down the road? There doesn't seem to be much realisation of how the world has been affected."

The pace at which change has to happen also remains a challenge for the FE sector. Looking into the future, all involved at Edinburgh College express a willingness to continue to work together, and a realisation that "we are where we are".


5.6% - The fall in Edinburgh College income from the Scottish Funding Council in 2013-14

pound;14.7m - The cost of merger estimated in the business case, of which pound;10.5m related to voluntary severances.

1,154 - The number of FTE staff at the three Edinburgh colleges prior to the commencement of the merger process.

237 - The number of jobs the original merger plan assumed would be lost over a three-year period.

49 - The number of management roles to be lost (60% of the total)

96 - The number of teaching roles to be lost (17.5%)

92 - The number of support roles to be cut (17.5%).

55 to 25 - The completed reduction in number in the top two levels of management.

pound;8.3m - The amount of SFC funding expected to support the implementation process

35,000 - The number of students across full- and part-time courses at Edinburgh College.

792 - The hours per annum worked by some full-time teaching staff at the newly-merged college, under their pre-merger contract

860 - The hours per annum worked by other teaching staff.


Ian McKay, regional lead

Hire a good project manager. Then appoint your principal as soon as you can. Then start to get the message out that there is a new college.

Mandy Exley, principal

It is important to establish the brand early. Look forward. Getting the student voice heard is one of the key things I have learned. It is everything - once this is in place, all else falls into place. It's slow and takes time but worth it.

Mike Cowley, EIS branch convener

Get a recognition agreement so you can then move on to harmonisation.

Carolyn Murray, interim head of organisational development

Get fit for merger. Start early, start working on the culture of the organisation and working with your management team so that they understand and help their staff with the change. Be consistent and honest. Listen to the staff as well - they have the answers.

Wendy Groome-Vine, head of student services at Milton Road and Midlothian campuses

Embrace it. I have come from the private sector and have been involved in merger. Keep the focus.

Louise McGurk, Unison area organiser

Let your members know that you are aware, that you are there and they can come for advice. Engagement with management has to be in open discussions and it has to be on good terms.

John Martin, student president

Student associations have to make sure they consult with students a lot. The information they can give is gold dust. They should also work in partnership with the college, but that does not mean you have to do everything the college wants you to.

Original headline: Pioneering merger points the way forward for FE

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