Post-16 - Teething problems plague flagship college merger

8th November 2013 at 00:00
Staff and students still face `significant difficulties', SFC says

A merger to create the biggest college in Scotland has led to a breakdown in trust between management and some staff, an investigation by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) has found.

Relationships at Edinburgh College - which was created by the merger of Jewel and Esk, Stevenson and Telford colleges a year ago - have been strained between management and members of the Further Education Lecturers Association (EIS-FELA) union branch.

The SFC visited the college after the Scottish government asked it to respond to a letter from the union setting out its concerns. College management told the funding council that it had been difficult to engage with the union since the merged branch was formed, and said that progress agreeing a recognition and procedures agreement had been slow.

The SFC said that the relationship between management and at least some members of the EIS branch executive at the college had "broken down". "The EIS-FELA executive has provided us with evidence on the level of engagement," its response said. "While many meetings have taken place, they do not appear to have led to progress on many issues."

The relationship between management and the Unison union was working more effectively, the SFC noted, leading to a recognition agreement and a pay deal.

The creation of Edinburgh College has also prompted "significant difficulties" for staff and students, in particular around the accessing of bursaries, student enrolment and administrative systems, according to the SFC. "It appears to us that some of these issues are being created or exacerbated by the implementation of new systems because of the merger," the response said.

Although it was not possible to measure the scale of problems with new systems, the president of the student association and staff members said that complaints were significantly higher than in previous years.

"Many of the systems and morale issues referred to in the EIS-FELA letter are real and serious," the SFC said. "The management of the college are implementing a merger to create the biggest college in Scotland. This is challenging and we accept there will be issues as systems settle in.

"However, it is important that the students that are in a college at the time of a merger should not be disadvantaged."

The creation of Edinburgh College is one of the most high-profile mergers stemming from the regionalisation process happening across Scotland. A number of surveys at different colleges have highlighted complaints from staff about how change has been implemented.

The SFC said it was not yet clear whether problems created because of changes to middle-management structures at Edinburgh were transitional, or would require longer-term action.

Despite these challenges, the funding council rejected the calls for intervention from either itself or government. It said college management was aware of the problems identified by staff and students and was acting on them, effectively in most cases.

The board had behaved appropriately in its handling of the difficulties, it added. "We believe that with continued priority given to these issues, college management should be able to resolve the difficulties."

An SFC spokeswoman told TESS: "We have recommended in the report that the management gives high priority to resolving the systems issues and that they keep their middle-management structure under review.

"We have suggested that they need to continue to work closely with their students . We have also recommended that they improve communication with staff."

A spokesman for EIS-FELA said: "Recognition of management failures in regards to effectively stewarding the Edinburgh College merger, specifically in terms of internal systems related to registers, bursaries and the college website, justify our invitation to Mike Russell to intervene."

Staff were "minded now to focus on quality of delivery in the most trying of circumstances", he added.

A college spokesperson said: "The SFC has recognised the unique challenges presented by the merger process and is satisfied that there are clear plans to resolve these issues. They are confident that `senior management of the college is systematically addressing the difficulties'."

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