Who will pull the FE strings?

20th July 2012 at 01:00
Why colleges in Scotland are still in the dark about the real forces of control behind their new system of governance

College principals and staff waited a long time for education secretary Michael Russell to announce how he would take forward the Griggs review into college governance, published earlier this year. But when his speech and subsequent question-and-answer session in parliament ended on 28 June, many felt it raised more questions than it answered.

This was not helped by the fact that the detailed response document to the Griggs review - published on the same day as the parliamentary announcement - had to be re-issued the following Monday, after officials noticed mistakes and inconsistencies in the original.

The government has chosen to delay its decision on a number of recommendations made by Professor Russel Griggs, including the controversial suggestion that college reserves, beyond a certain threshold, should be returned to the centre for the good of the sector as a whole.

Further announcements are still to be made on how much annual surplus colleges should be allowed to create for their own use, as well as on liquid reserves and whether the government should have responsibility for funding capital projects.

Days away from summer recess, however, the education secretary was keen to give the sector enough information to maintain the pace of reform it has shown in the months since the regionalisation agenda was first revealed in the government's Putting Learners at the Centre document.

He confirmed that, despite Professor Griggs' recommending that each region should have one college, there would be flexibility, allowing for multi- college regions and federations where necessary (see chart opposite).

This meant that there would now be two types of regions: single-college ones like the Borders, or like Fife where all the colleges have agreed to merge into one; and multi-college ones like Glasgow, which is moving towards a three-college set-up.

The part of his announcement that captured the headlines was the appointment of 12 - now 13 - regional chairs to aid transformation in their respective regions.

The appointees, all distinguished and with a long involvement in Scottish education, will be in post for a year - until legislation on the new regional structures can be passed and a public appointment process implemented.

Their appointment attracted significant criticism. To opposition politicians and some in the sector, the way they were hand-picked by the education secretary exhibited an increasing level of ministerial control over decision-making processes in the sector.

These shadow chairs - or "regional leads", as the government calls them - are at the heart of the reform process, so this allows Mr Russell to influence the direction he wants that process to take in each region.

Their roles are likely to vary, depending on progress towards regionalisation, but everywhere, they will be integral. In a one-college region like Dumfries and Galloway, for example, it could be to engage the wider education community and economy with the college. In multi-college regions, such as Lanarkshire and Glasgow, where federation or merger agreements in principle are fairly recent, they would work to support the transitional process. Their influence is also likely to extend far beyond their one-year tenure. In a few months, when college funding will be allocated for the first time to regions, rather than individual institutions, regional chairs are expected to be instrumental in distributing the region's pot of money.

They are also likely to play an essential role in the recruitment of principals - TESS has learned that already the process to find a principal for the new Edinburgh college was halted to ensure the new regional chair could be involved.

This is a concern to some people who question their objectivity, especially where the individuals appointed to the regional chairs have long been involved in the sector and relationships have been built.

The chairs are also at the heart of the new structure the education secretary envisages for all 13 college regions. Regional bodies or boards will be created around them, and these will enter into outcome agreements for the region with the Scottish Funding Council, decide provision and strategy, be the main point of contact for regional partners, distribute funding across the region, and be accountable to the funding council for delivering the agreements.

Like Professor Griggs, the education secretary believes that this will create a level of accountability in the FE sector that has long been lacking.

So too will the way regional chairs and board members are to be appointed. In the first instance, they will be appointed by the government, while later members will be appointed by boards themselves, with the approval of their chair and ministers.

Strict guidance will be issued by the government on membership to make sure it is "outcome based" and meets the demands of the region. Some, however, believe the need for governmental appointments and approval at all levels again increases ministerial control over the direction of the sector.

In single-college regions, the organisational structure around the regional bodies is reasonably straightforward. The regional body will be the college, and it will not only be responsible for distributing funding for the region and deciding strategy, it will also be the employer of all staff and accountable to the funding council.

Boards will have 12 to 18 members to reflect their increased range of functions, including two staff representatives and at least one student, whose role will be identical to other board members'.

The principal will not be a member of the board, but attend meetings. Ministers can remove any board members, including the chair, for mismanagement or failure.

Apart from concerns around ministerial control, these changes have been reasonably well received. Most had expected these announcements, and colleges have been working for months on coming together to form regional structures and drawing up outcome agreements.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: "The broad thrust of Scottish government policy in relation to the college governance in Scotland is, we believe, heading in the right direction.

"The move to a regional structure of governance for Scotland's further education colleges is welcome and should, if implemented properly, lead to improvements in terms of national and local accountability and transparency."

The EIS also welcomed the increase in staff representation on the regional boards, which goes beyond the recommendations in the Griggs review.

Serious concerns, however, have arisen around the much more complicated and less clear structures to be set up in multi-college regions. With the Griggs review not allowing for more than one college per region, organisational layers now need to be added to allow for the flexibility the education secretary is committed to.

The current college boards in these regions will be reformed, and will simply be in charge of day-to-day operations. They will be chaired by the principal, who will be appointed by the regional board and joined by two further senior managers, one staff and one student representative, plus further members appointed initially by ministers, and then by the regional boards, to make a total membership of up to 11.

The new role of the principal has still to be worked out in detail but there are fears they could, as one put it, become "well-paid clerks". Others, however, are more optimistic, stressing that the new set-up would reinforce the principal's role as an accountable public servant.

While Mr Russell's response to the Griggs review outlined that he wants the performance of individual college boards to be monitored by the regional boards through local outcome agreements, and the regional boards to be accountable to the SFC, the precise way in which the different structures will work together is not yet clear.

"Colleges still have questions and concerns on how the announced changes are to work in practice, particularly where there is to be more than one college in a region," said Scotland's Colleges chief executive, John Henderson.

"A balance between local responsiveness and regional direction has to be maintained, and reinforced by strong accountability in line with good governance practice."

Although the regional boards will distribute funding and decide which local college is responsible for what part of provision, the local colleges will remain the employers of staff. This could lead to difficulties, say the unions, where departments and courses move across the region or course closures are decided regionally.

It might also, according to the EIS, slow down progress towards a return to national bargaining - another Griggs recommendation. Mr Russell stopped short of committing to it and when national bargaining might be reintroduced, saying merely that the funding council had been tasked to "conduct some initial mapping".

Mr Flanagan had concerns about the education secretary's move away from the Griggs timetable on national bargaining. "We would urge the cabinet secretary to accelerate this process," he said.

Student representatives also voiced concerns about the ambiguity around their role in the new structures. Professor Griggs had recommended that student representation and participation become a commitment across the sector.

Following Mr Russell's announcement, he also told TESS that he hoped student associations across Scotland would be able to mirror the recently announced set-up in Edinburgh, where the new association would be stronger and better staffed than the sum of the three associations of the merging colleges.

"It is very important the learner has a say in this, and the only way you are going to do that is through good, strong student associations," said Professor Griggs.

While the education secretary has agreed and will include guidance on this in his next letter to the funding council, no commitments have been made about funding, and although boards can contain up to two student members, it seems, legally, one will be sufficient.

"There's no reason why every board shouldn't have two student representatives," said Graeme Kirkpatrick, depute president of NUS Scotland. "Colleges must have students at their heart, and they are a vital stakeholder. Equally, students are best placed to support the direction and development of colleges."

The next months will see further clarification and progress on a number of these issues. The FE strategic forum, which will give guidance to the government on national FE issues, is due to be set up by the end of the year, and the education secretary plans to introduce legislation around the reform agenda and regionalisation as soon as possible.

A Scottish Funding Council spokesman said it was currently working with the regions to finalise outcome agreements. Announcements on how the distribution of funding will work can be expected later this year.

Further announcements from the education secretary on reserves and capital projects will also help to create more clarity. But as staff continue to fear for their jobs, principals bid for their posts in new structures, and students worry about what changes might mean for them, it seems Michael Russell's attempt to settle the sector's nerves before the summer recess has been hampered by the withholding of too many answers.

"The fog is getting deeper and we have nothing but a ruler to measure it," said Graeme Hyslop, principal of Langside College.

In numbers

18 - The maximum size of the new regional boards.

16 - The maximum size of current college boards.

2 - The number of staff representatives on the new regional boards.

11 - The maximum number of members on future local college boards.

4 - The number of regions where a multi-college outcome looks likely.

New organisational structure in multi-college regions

The government

Appoints the chair and initial members of the regional board, can remove members and the chair, will initially appoint local college board members

Regional board

Headed by regional chair, up to 18 members, responsible for negotiating outcome agreements and regional strategic direction, appoints local college principals and additional members for local board.

2 staff representatives

1-2 student representatives

Local principals attend meetings

Local college board (College 1)*

Local college board (College 2)*

* Local college boards - each chaired by the principal, with up to 11 members, in charge of day-to-day operations. Members include two other senior managers, one staff representative, one student representative, plus additional members, initially appointed by ministers

Mergers add to the spice of Fife

It was the noticeable gap in the education secretary's announcement - while he was able to announce 12 out of 13 regional chairs at the end of June, it was another week before he could confirm the final one - Tony Jakimciw, principal of Dumfries and Galloway College, as the shadow chair for the Fife region.

The wait was not down to any problems in Fife concerning the regionalisation agenda, everyone insisted.

Despite a difficult year for Adam Smith College (the biggest in the region), which had seen the departure of several senior managers and the principal under huge public pressure and a Scottish Funding Council investigation into allegations of bullying and harassment, progress has been made in the move towards regional provision.

Last month, Carnegie, Adam Smith and Elmwood colleges announced they would come together to form a regional college for Fife - not a merger of three "old" structures, but the creation of a new one, the joint statement read.

For Elmwood College, this means a split of operations into two. Those parts of the college which provide land-based courses will pursue long- standing merger plans with the other land-based colleges (the Scottish Agricultural College, Oatridge and Barony) - this could lead to the creation of a new institution by October, the education secretary said in his announcement last month.

The other parts of Elmwood will join Adam Smith and Carnegie to form a regional Fife college. All three were "committed to the regionalisation agenda (which provided) everyone with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something innovative that truly puts the learner at the centre", a Carnegie College spokesman told TESS.

The creation of the new entity - working title Fife Regional College - was "already well underway with a partnership board established, working collaboratively as we move forward to a regional college", he added.

"This new college will aspire to be a centre of excellence that delivers locally across Fife for Fife, providing inspiring learning to deliver real success for the people and businesses of Fife."

The new regional boards

- Have 11 to 18 members.

- Functions of regional boards in single and multi-college regions will be broadly similar, although a number of remits will be added where regional boards have more than one college to manage.

- A principal will attend, but not automatically be a board member by right.

- No remuneration for regional chairs, despite Griggs' recommendation that there should be, but ministers can consider remuneration on a case-by-case basis where there is an "evidence of need".

- Chairs to serve one term with possibility of a further term at the decision of the minister.

- Members should also serve one term, with the possibility of a further term at the discretion of the board. Further terms beyond that are possible, but only following open recruitment procedures.

- There will no longer be restrictions on the age of a candidate, and councillors and council employees can be elected chairs.

- Boards in multi-college regions will have a limited staff to support their work.

Original headline: Griggs review should be going forward but the `fog is deeper'

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