College mergers have failed to raise standards, say staff

27th November 2015 at 00:00
Lecturers report that FE regionalisation has increased their workload but not improved teaching or learning

Eight out of 10 lecturers claim their workload has increased following a major shake-up of Scotland’s FE colleges, and almost nine out of 10 say the process has failed to improve the quality of provision, a new survey shows.

According to a report published by the EIS-FELA union today, 81 per cent of teaching staff believe their workload has increased after a series of mergers which reorganised the sector into 13 regions.

In addition, 89 per cent feel that teaching and learning has not been improved by the changes.

The Scottish government announced its regionalisation agenda four years ago as part of a drive for increased efficiency and accountability, and to improve the offer to college students. The mergers followed this announcement, the majority of them around two years ago, and most of the 13 regions now contain only one large college.

Some 950 lecturers responded to the survey, with 91 per cent saying they did not believe mergers had improved college management, and only 14 per cent saying their community was better served by the merged college.

Thousands of staff lost

In today’s report on the mergers, lecturers’ union EIS-FELA says: “It is very clear that the merged colleges have, in the view of their staff, failed to deliver improvements in many of the educational areas that they were supposed to do so.”

The report goes on to highlight that mergers across Scotland led to the “loss of thousands of experienced staff from the sector”, which affected colleges’ ability to maintain teaching activity and contacts with local communities.

An Audit Scotland report published this year said the number of college staff fell by 9.3 per cent between 2011-12 and 2013-14.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said that mergers had been “touted” as the means to deliver a “leaner, more efficient further education sector”.

He noted that colleges were supposed to be more focused on delivering high-quality learning and teaching that was better suited to the needs of local communities, but added: “Unfortunately, as our survey shows, these imagined benefits have yet to become reality.”

Mr Flanagan warned that the college sector had paid “a heavy price” over the past few years, with deep cuts to funding, significant job losses and major reductions in student numbers.

Institutions ‘of influence’

College leaders have repeatedly highlighted the challenges involved in establishing a newly merged institution while coming to terms with funding cuts.

But Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said that institutions had coped well. “We are proud that colleges have maintained high-quality teaching and support for students, which has been recognised by governmental bodies,” she said. “Following the merger process, we believe that Scotland’s colleges are now in a better position to meet the needs of students and employers at a local, regional and national level.

“While we recognise that some challenges remain, the sector is working in a far more coherent way and is better able to engage with stakeholders and learners.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish government said that college reform had resulted in the creation of large and influential institutions across Scotland.

“The sector has implemented the most profound set of public sector reforms in Scottish further education for more than a generation, resulting in colleges of scale and influence across Scotland,” she said.

“Colleges are using their new and substantial influence and building partnerships with employers, schools and universities to improve student outcomes and maximise their contribution to economic growth.”

It was “a priority” to ensure that colleges had “robust plans for supporting and developing their staff”, the spokeswoman added.

View from the principal: ‘The merger allowed us to rationalise’

Ken Thomson, principal of Forth Valley College, believes that the Scottish government’s reform agenda has turned Scotland’s colleges into “catalysts for economic development”.

They were now specialising more and able to provide the skilled workers required by business, he told the Association of Colleges’ annual conference in Birmingham last week.

The size of the colleges had also put them in “a far stronger political position” with the Scottish government, he said.

Forth Valley College merged in 2005, prior to the Scottish government’s regionalisation agenda. The merger process, during which the college lost 120 people – equivalent to a fifth of its staff – and reduced its overall activity, had been “hard”, Mr Thomson said.

“But what it certainly has allowed us to do is to really rationalise our curriculum as a strategy for what business needs,” he added.

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