Post-16 - Colleges go public 'to maintain ties'

13th December 2013 at 00:00
Ministers wanted to keep the sector close, says civil servant

The government decided to allow colleges to be reclassified as public bodies to ensure that it maintained its influence over the sector, a senior civil servant has admitted.

Leslie Evans, director-general for learning and justice, told the Scottish Parliament's Public Audit Committee that ministers had taken the decision because of substantial government investment in the sector and to safeguard the "partnership" between the two.

The change in colleges' status will come into force in 2014. It will have a significant impact on how institutions are run because any financial surpluses they hold at the end of each year will have to be returned to the government.

Colleges in England and Wales avoided reclassification after the government chose to remove them from its control. But Ms Evans told MSPs: "Ministers (in Scotland) wanted to maintain transparency and accountability."

This was "very important to keeping learner and taxpayer confidence", she added.

The decision was also in keeping with Russel Griggs' review of college governance, which "talked about real cohesive engagement between the Scottish government and the sector as a whole" and stressed the importance of good governance in achieving the government's ambitions for the sector, she said.

"It was therefore always going to be important from ministers' perspective at least to maintain a close relationship with colleges and to maintain access to and the quality of governance and accountability in the sector," Ms Evans said.

In lieu of reclassification, England has appointed an FE commissioner who is primarily called in to deal with underperformance in colleges. But Ms Evans said that following a similar model in Scotland would have compromised the current relationship between the government and the sector.

The issue of reclassifying Scottish colleges was first raised in October 2010. It was finally revealed in May this year that the change in status would go ahead on 1 April 2014.

Ms Evans told the committee last week that it had not initially been clear what the options or implications would be. "It has taken quite a bit of time to unpack that," she said.

But last month, TESS reported on a Freedom of Information request by Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur that he said showed that the government "sat back and did little or nothing at all" to avert reclassification.

Mary Scanlon, education and lifelong learning spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives and deputy convenor of the public audit committee, told TESS: "To me, it appears to be all about government control, governance and ministerial interference.

"There was no debate in parliament, there was no democratic debate and they chose this route ... They talk about this being imposed by Westminster, but the fact is that in England, they have chosen to reject this."

Ms Scanlon added that she was "yet to meet a principal who thinks this is a good idea" and said that education secretary Michael Russell had confirmed to her that the benefits to colleges were "none".

"Colleges have been able to respond very quickly to the needs of the local community," she said. "They now have to go carry a begging bowl to government, rather than taking their own decisions, being independent and responding to the needs of the local community."

One college principal, who did not want to be named, told TESS: "This is about ministers keeping control. They are putting colleges through massive uncertainty and extensive processes."

The principal added that the government already had all the tools at its disposal to hold colleges accountable, including the new regional outcome agreements.

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