After years of reform across Scottish further education, the next round of re-organisation could be due, after the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) announced plans for closer cooperation – and for four of its 13 institutions to “integrate”.
Teaching unions and students have voiced concerns that, although UHI says the move is to improve sustainability, it could have a significant impact on staff. Opposition politicians have also raised concerns that financial pressures could be behind the proposals.
It was announced last week that Inverness College UHI, Lews Castle College UHI, Moray College UHI and North Highland College UHI would lead an initiative for “creating a more integrated institution”. The university, which is made up of 13 colleges and research institutions, aims to provide education to meet the needs of learners, employees and the wider community, adding: “But we need to do this sustainably”.
The university therefore examined the practicalities of creating a more integrated institution – an initiative led by the four colleges with other academic partners “welcome to join to any degree at any stage”.
The development of partnerships ranging from efficiency programmes to curriculum sharing has also been agreed.
Garry Coutts, chair of the university court, says that UHI continues to be ambitious and is “committed to focusing positively on the future and to delivering the widest range of academic opportunities for learners and communities across the Highlands and Islands.”
But a spokesman for the EIS teaching union says it has “a number of concerns” about the proposals. He adds: “The EIS has concerns about any proposals that will lead to the erosion of further education in the Highlands and Islands and would be opposed to any suggestion of merger between the institutions.”
The spokesman says that the plans will also have consequences for staff working in the affected colleges. He continues: “The EIS, through the process of national bargaining and prolonged industrial action, has fought to address pay inequalities and drive forward improvements in the terms and conditions for lecturers in the further education sector. We do not want to see this work lost.”
Scottish Conservatives education spokeswoman Liz Smith says it is “all too clear that both the university and college sectors are facing very tough financial pressures under the SNP – whether those come from capital budgets or from running costs, most especially in terms of the recent salary settlement for staff”.
She adds: “There are renewed question marks over the future sustainability of some colleges and how they will deliver education to an increasingly diverse group of students.”
A spokesman for UHI says the new initiative is “at a very early stage” and that national bargaining implications would be considered.
UHI also stresses that there is no savings target set: “It has not been discussed and is not part of the rationale for doing what we’re doing. If we become more integrated and operationally efficient it will, however, allow any savings...to be directed towards our students, staff and our communities.”
A Scottish Funding Council spokesperson says: “SFC is supporting the development of a business case to explore the options further – with the aim of helping create a strengthened, better integrated institution.”
A Scottish government spokesperson adds that the UHI budget has increased by almost £4 million since 2013-14 and that the Scottish Funding Council is working with the college to support the development of a business case around this proposal.