The Scottish Office has produced a plan to defuse fears that students will lose out once colleges control their grants. Neil Munro reports
The Scottish Office has pledged colleges will not be able to plunder the pound;45 million available for further education student bursaries.
In a controversial move, the cash is to be handed over to colleges from April. The Scottish Office says the money will be ring-fenced so colleges cannot use it to fund other projects. And in another bid to allay fears that cash-strapped colleges could be forced to limit the 20,000 bursaries currently paid out to students, the Scottish Office has confirmed administration costs will be included in the sum.
Doubts are growing over whether the colleges will have staffing, financial and computer systems geared up in time. Timing will be "tight" according to Mary Macmillan, senior assistant director of education in Lothian.
Brian Gardner, Strathclyde's assistant director of education who is now head of education resource services for the new North Ayrshire Council, says: "I've got no doubts that the transition can be accomplished.
"The question is whether it can be done in the time. This has come at a time when local government is going through its own massive reorganisation and the bursary change was an additional complication for us."
The FE principals met yesterday (Thursday) to discuss some of the issues. Mike Webster, the Perth College principal who chaired the meeting, says its intention was to concentrate purely on the big picture - whether there should continue to be a national bursaries policy on such matters as the criteria for awarding bursaries and how much discretion should be left to the colleges.
Few colleges have recruited bursary staff although colleges will be technically responsible for paying students their instalments for the final summer term of this session. If they are follow local authority practice, they would also start work for the next college year within the next two months.
But the most immediate impact of the change will be felt by the staff who work in council bursary sections and who are already tackling the uncertainties of local government reform.
No redundancies have been suggested s o far, but Justin Taylor, the Highland Region official who administers bursaries in the Inverness division, said he expected to be only "30 per cent employed" on April 1.
He will still be occupied with some of the pound;4.5 million of bursary work which remains under local authority control - grants for senior school pupils, discretionary awards for Open University students and financial support for students who do not attend any of the 43 incorporated colleges in Scotland (mostly students who have to go to an English college because their course is not offered in Scotland). Orkney and Shetland councils only will keep control of FE bursaries since their four FE centres are too small to stand alone.
The Convention of Local Authorities is sending out the views of its member councils on the future of bursary staff. Strathclyde has suggested that they can be transferred to the colleges Ms Macmillan says Lothian will oppose any suggestion that colleges should take over.
"Our view is quite clear that they are local authority staff and that they should transfer to the new councils," she said. "If they then wish to apply for bursary posts in the colleges, that is a matter for them." Ms Macmillan said it would be impossible for many of the smaller colleges to absorb the staff.
In the next few weeks colleges will have to arrange to receive data on current students There will also have to be adjustments to the data protection registration, Lothian intends writing to all its bursary-holders to let them know that information held about them will be passed to the colleges, so they have time to protest if they wish.
Then colleges will have to decide how their policy will work. Mr Gardner says the colleges would be almost bound to cash-limit their bursary spending, unlike local authorities with their demand-led policy.
Ms Macmillan adds that the regional councils were large enough to cope with the uncertain pressures on bursary budgets. While the colleges would be allowed to top-up this expenditure from other parts of their budget, she forecast that the first two years would be particularly difficult as the colleges "struggle to reconcile bursary demands with course recruit-ment".
Michael Taylor, principal of Edinburgh's Telford College, confirmed that a considerable amount of work remains to be done to set up a new bursaries scheme - even in a large institution such as his which receives the second biggest FE grant from the Scottish Office. "I am about as well-prepared for this as I am to fly to Mars," he said.
Dr Taylor said: "We have no staff expertise to manage the new system and we are not clear what the system for bursaries is going to be.
"Meanwhile, we are interviewing for places for next year and my staff have no idea what information to give to potential students.
"In the past we were able to tell students that they should apply to their local authority for a bursary; we can no longer do that but we are concerned that we are unable to tell them what alternative arrangements are to be put in place."
At Aberdeen College, Scotland's largest, Roddy Scott, director of finance and administration, said that the changes were "likely to demand the creation of new posts and will almost certainly require investment in information technology. We're keenly aware of our duty to ensure the smooth and successful transfer of bursary responsibility".
The Scottish Office has set up a working party to oversee the transition under the chairmanship of Jim Skinner, chairman of the board at Anniesland College. It is being assisted by Linda McKay, depute principal at Glenrothes College, and Rob Tindall, Tayside's former further education leader.