A Scottish college has reversed a controversial decision to cancel a course that could have resulted in students being forced to travel hundreds of miles to complete their studies in the north of England.
Fife College told Tes Scotland this week that, following representation from students on the Higher National Diploma (HND) course in practical journalism, a previous decision to withdraw that course for 2018-19 because of a lack of demand had been revised, although that may only be for a year.
The issue, which was raised in Parliament, has highlighted the challenges colleges face in ensuring they focus on financially viable courses without depriving students of local opportunities – and the often unpalatable alternatives for students if courses cannot be sustained.
“The college has decided to continue to run the HND for a further year into 2018-19, thereby enabling students to continue their studies in Fife,” a college spokesman said, days after the matter was discussed in Parliament.
The announcement that the college was to discontinue the course had sparked controversy after it was reported that students who did not wish to leave with an Higher National Certificate (HNC) qualification – which is achieved after the first year of the course – but instead with a two-year HND and a National Council for the Training of Journalists qualification might need to travel to the University of Sunderland – a round-trip of more than 300 miles from the Fife institution’s campus at Kirkcaldy.
The college said there were 16 students on the HNC course but only seven on the HND. It expected that the number would remain low in future.
The matter was raised in the Scottish Parliament last week. Claire Baker, an MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, said those students had made “an investment in the course and had expectations about their future” and that “For many Fife students, transfer to Sunderland is not a realistic option.”
However, further and higher education minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said the course had been withdrawn because of a lack of demand from students and after an analysis of the future needs of employers in Fife.
“When there is any change to course options, the government expects colleges to work with students...to provide support and information about alternative opportunities to continue their studies,” she said.
Reviewing the curriculum and streamlining the courses offer, in line with demand from both students and local employers, is a commonly used approach by further education colleges to remain financially sustainable.
Speaking to Tes Scotland earlier this year, principal Hugh Hall, who had recently taken up his post, said he would “categorically not” run a deficit. “I have a responsibility as accounting officer to balance the books,” he said, adding that his preferred option to do so was by increasing income.
This week, the college said it had decided to withdraw its HND course in practical journalism from 2018-19 owing to a lack of demand. In a statement, it said: “The numbers on the course have been consistently low for several years making the course unsustainable financially. Students who enrolled on the HND course initially were made aware of this change in June, before the course began, with alternative options highlighted.”
In a previous statement, the college said that students signing up for the HNC did so on the basis that they could not progress to HND at Fife College and that they had been advised that there were a number of progression routes available at other colleges or universities.
This week, the spokesman said that, despite agreeing to run the course for a further year to allow current students, to complete the HND in Fife, the college was making no commitment at this stage beyond 2018-19.
But, the spokesman added, “The decision to give continuity to our students will give the college time to work with the industry and other stakeholders to decide how the course can be reshaped and promoted in future years to ensure it attracts sufficient numbers of students to make it viable.”
Fife College plans to continue to run the HNC practical journalism course.
Fife College Students’ Association president for welfare and equality, Jen Anderson, said the association understood and shared “our students’ frustration whenever a future path is no longer available, especially when the decision is made after a student has enrolled on their course”.
She said: “On this occasion, we were aware of the rationale for the decision; unfortunately, the current funding situation for all colleges is leading to courses that are less in demand being cut. We are aware that the college offered the affected students advice on potential next steps and links with universities.”
She added, however, that “the approaching Ucas deadline for applications and the demands of a change from college to university life” meant that “this may not be feasible” for students if a course was cancelled at this stage of the year.
She said she looked forward to celebrating the success of students who could now finish their journalism studies in Kirkcaldy.