This is not the time to cut college numbers and places

7th October 2011 at 01:00
Current `reform' will be the true test of the Government's commitment to parity of esteem for vocational education

Scottish Colleges could be forgiven for asking what they have done wrong to precipitate the current review of their status and the swingeing cuts to their funding initiated by SNP ministers. After all, it is only a matter of months since they were being praised by the same individuals for their role in responding "quickly and strongly to the challenges that communities across Scotland have faced during the economic downturn", and being assured that that they would make "a significant contribution to Scotland's recovery". Now many of our colleges are wondering if they will still be in existence when the recovery actually takes place.

The cause of their concern is a statement by ministers of their desire to "reform" the broader post-16 education system, which they wrongly describe as remaining "untouched for decades" or "virtually unchanged since devolution".

No one who has had any contact with the FE sector in this period would recognise it from such a description. On the contrary, Scotland's colleges have been continuously developed as a result of the pre-SNP policies of investment, expansion and reform. If there is a college campus in Scotland unchanged since devolution, I would be interested to learn where it is.

Massive investment in FE colleges by the Scottish government of which I was a member has transformed the sector and, most importantly, the learning environment in which students now absorb new skills alongside traditional trades, and modern teaching methods consistently push the boundaries of vocational learning to new levels of expertise.

To describe Scotland's FE colleges as a relic of "Thatcherism" is so far removed from the truth as to be risible, as well as insulting. Have the SNP ministers who make these glib remarks ever been inside an FE college? Far from being "untouched", Scottish legislation in 2005 established parity of esteem for FE with higher education.

We established the doctrine that vocational training and education are as important as university degrees; that apprentices are as necessary as undergraduates for our economy and its future competitiveness - to the extent that all political parties now vie with each other to outdo their opponents' commitment to increasing their numbers.

Under the Labour-led Scottish Government, new colleges, new courses and new students were the order of the day, and investment was targeted at an area of activity which produced the maximum economic and social return, as well as a new definition of public duty from the Scottish Government. Now, the fear of many involved within the FE sector is that the exact opposite philosophy is determining the supposed need for "reform". Last year, the SNP administration at Holyrood cut funding to colleges by 10.5 per cent - and at the same time, the number of university places fell.

Now, following the budget announcement, funding for new places at college is at a premium and fears are expressed that adult returners and other lifelong learners will be displaced as a consequence, even if college places can be maintained. After all, a Scottish Government commitment to protect places is only as good as the back-up funding provided to colleges to pay for them.

You don't need to understand the minutiae of college funding mechanisms to appreciate that a 13.5 per cent cut in funding cannot be absorbed by the sector without affecting the quality as well as the quantity of teaching provision. What price a "no compulsory redundancy" policy under these circumstances?

More than 1,000 college staff in Scottish FE colleges have already been lost officially - more than any other part of the public sector - and staff reductions result in fewer experienced lecturers, as well as cuts to the numbers of courses on offer and larger class sizes.

Proposed mergers to create "regional groupings" of colleges create genuine concern that more jobs will go and community colleges currently serving the labour market needs of local areas will be swallowed up by conglomerates that are unresponsive to the communities they should serve or local employers demand for trained, skilled workforces.

The truth is that this is not the time to be cutting college numbers and places. Prejudice can never be a sound basis for reform and as this unnecessary review progresses, reason must prevail and the genuine achievements of the sector should come to the fore.

Where change is necessary it can be achieved by consensus as opposed to diktat. The governance of colleges - and universities - should be more open, transparent and accountable, but we must ensure that the same rules apply to both.

After all, if university mergers are to be secured only after an examination of the financial and educational reasons to justify them, why should the FE sector be treated any differently? Anyone can claim that there are too many colleges, but this exercise of "reform" will be the true test of the Scottish Government's commitment to parity of esteem for vocational education and training, as opposed to unsubstantiated sound bites about "wasteful duplication", which don't address the reality of most people's experience and are a smokescreen for cuts by any other name.

The threat of a return to Thatcherite doctrines does not come from Scotland's FE sector, but from SNP ministers and their saloon-bar opinions.

Allan Wilson, former deputy minister for enterprise and lifelong learning with responsibility for further and higher education, 2004-07, now works as a public policy adviser with Invicta Public Affairs.

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