The results are in for the great FE check-up
College reform was intended to improve transparency in the sector and build clearer and more accountable governance structures. The new, regionalised sector was meant to offer learners relevant opportunities and clear progression routes. In the process, millions in precious government funding would be saved by abolishing the duplication of the old system.
And a recent report on Scotland's colleges by Audit Scotland (bit.lyScotlandsCollegesReport) shows that much has indeed changed since 2010, when the reform process began.
The document shows that between 2011-12 and 2014-15 the number of colleges shrank from 37 to 20, predominantly through merger. Ten of the 13 new college regions now host only one college, with one board to govern it.
Colleges' financial situation has changed, too. In 2014, they were reclassified by the Office for National Statistics as public bodies. The change in status has required additional financial reporting, increasing colleges' accountability - and reducing their autonomy. To protect their financial reserves, which have to be returned to the government at the end of the financial year, colleges set up independent arm's-length foundations and transferred pound;99 million to them in 2013-14 alone.
Audit Scotland stresses that it is unclear how much money has been saved by the reforms - and whether the government's projected pound;50 million annual saving can be achieved from next year. However, it maintains that the mergers have "contributed to significant efficiency savings".
Despite a 12.3 per cent reduction in government funding between 2011-12 and 2013-14, the report says that colleges are in a "generally sound" position. As for the pound;95.2 million deficit reported by the sector in 2013-14, Audit Scotland argues that if the figure is adjusted for transfers to arm's-length foundations, this results in a surplus of pound;3.8 million.
Age of uncertainty
The picture when it comes to those working and learning in the college sector, however, is potentially more sombre.
Audit Scotland stresses that reform is ongoing and that changes are yet to bed in. It highlights a huge variation across the sector in the way that staffing changes have been made, terms and conditions agreed and curricula revised.
But the report also reveals that the number of full-time equivalent college staff fell by more than 9 per cent between 2011-12 and 2013-14. With most colleges maintaining the hours of learning they deliver, this implies an increase in either workload or class sizes. The document further hints at the difficulties encountered by those involved in the mergers, most notably in terms of handling severance payments for senior staff, identifying six colleges where this "fell short" of good practice.
The principal of a merged college, who did not want to be named, told TESS: "Creating a single structure, a set of systems and, most difficult of all, a culture from what had been very different types of institutions is time-consuming.
"To ensure that a focus is maintained on the student experience while working through those many changes is demanding. To create the single institution and still provide high-quality services to students in the context of continuing constraints in the funding for colleges - and, in real terms, reductions - is immensely challenging."
Among staff, the pressures have been compounded by suspicions about the rationale behind the changes and the impact the mergers have had on relationships within the institutions.
A spokesman for the EIS-FELA union at Edinburgh College, which was created through merger in 2012 and is therefore further along the implementation process than many other colleges, tells TESS that the main findings of the Audit Scotland report confirm "the fears of staff and students, namely that the merger process was driven primarily by fiscal, not educational priorities, and that during the process some senior staff and principals took the opportunity to leave the sector with disproportionate severances which ought to have been reserved for front-line services".
The spokesman says that although staff at Edinburgh College managed to win "a significant pay, terms and conditions deal on the basis of collective action sustained across three campuses, management and the Scottish government seriously underestimated the disruption, the costs involved and the stress to staff".
He acknowledges that relationships with management are "strained - there is no point denying that", and adds: "There is no transparency on college funds. Resourcing and staffing are suffering and we have lost thousands of students.
"The biggest issue is as it always has been - securing the resources to offer our students the best possible experience of further education. Staff require the best possible climate within which to practice. Neither are currently in place."
Support staff have had similar experiences. A spokesman for the union Unison says that "the creation of new structures, terms and conditions, regrading and relocations" has caused "considerable disruption".
He adds: "Alongside this is the impact of the real agenda here, which was about staffing cuts, [forcing] the sector to shed staff while trying to offer similar services. This has had a massive effect on workload and staff morale. Staff have tried to deliver services previously offered but are unable to, with many forced to work longer hours to support students. We expect an increase in stress-related illness.
"It has also led to an inconsistent delivery of support services where some colleges will not use money for certain key services and some will."
The Unison spokesman echoes EIS-FELA's opinion of relationships between management and staff, saying they are "pretty low in most colleges".
He concludes that "many of our members report that they have never experienced such low morale".
`It has been quite smooth'
For students, the changes have been easier, with lecturers and support staff continuing to offer high-quality education.
Barclay McCrindle, president of the Glasgow Clyde College student association, says that the formation of his college, created through the merger of three Glasgow institutions, has had no adverse effect on the learning experience.
"It has been quite smooth," he says. "I don't think students have felt much of a difference. Students feel better supported now than they did before because the student associations have become stronger. Students put pressure on the government for years to get funding for student associations to be bigger and better in colleges. They stepped up to the mark and now we have to step up."
Mr McCrindle adds that students have received significant support from the Scottish Funding Council, and believes that they have largely been protected from the changes. "In fact, our student satisfaction survey this year was slightly better than last year," he says.
He still has concerns about finance, however. "We had some bursary issues and there is definitely not enough money for student support," he says. "That is why I am concerned about the funding for Glasgow's regional board being top-sliced from the college budgets."
Bumpy road ahead?
The Audit Scotland report is positive about the student experience. "The changes to date have had minimal negative impact on students," it states. "Historically, the Scottish government has required colleges to deliver agreed amounts of learning activity in return for the funding it provides. Colleges continued to meet targets for learning, delivering around 76 million hours of learning in 2013-14."
But can this be sustained? The Edinburgh EIS-FELA spokesman thinks not: "Quality is, I think, being sustained, but how long can this be the case, given morale, a relentless cuts agenda and mismanagement of staff, curriculum and resources?"
And more difficult times lie ahead in terms of finance. The unnamed merged college principal tells TESS that the same provision is now being delivered with a fifth fewer staff, "and even then we are struggling to achieve a balanced budget for 2015-16".
They add: "While improved business processes and more creative ways of course delivery will continue to provide further opportunities for efficiency, these will be more marginal than those that have been achieved so far. The future looks bleak for a college such as this unless the unit of resource is improved."
There is no denying that the sector is some way off the aims set out by the reform plans of 2010 - and the recent resignations from the Glasgow Regional Colleges' Board indicate that progress has still to be made on governance structures. Whether the goals of a well-run, efficient sector can ever be reached, only time will tell.