With area reviews set to trigger a reorganisation of English colleges, Rob Wallen gives a Scottish principal’s view on how to survive the process
In 2011, Scotland’s education secretary at the time, Michael Russell, announced plans to restructure colleges into regional groups, to remove “wasteful duplication” and align colleges more closely with employers and local economic needs. Sound familiar?
Scottish college provision is now structured around 13 geographic and economic regions. Where there used to be Aberdeen College and Banff and Buchan College, today we have one institution: North East Scotland College.
The logic behind having a single college was clear in our region. The area is dominated by the oil and gas sector, and the same structural issues (road, rail, air, housing) impact the whole region.
There were challenges, of course. Aberdeenshire is large: the distance between the Aberdeen and Fraserburgh campuses is 41 miles, mostly on single-carriageway roads used by slow-moving industrial, agricultural and tourist traffic. The historic cultural differences between Aberdeen and Fraserburgh (where Banff and Buchan College was located) are considerable, meaning that the merger was not universally welcomed. The overall reduction in funding for public services increased the challenges.
The merger itself was easy enough. It’s just a process: if you get the right legal, HR and financial advice, and effective project management, it’s not a huge problem. But from a personal point of view, the merger was hugely challenging; the sheer size of it was daunting.
As well as a broad strategy, there were crucial details to manage: spending time with staff individually; accepting that some things were not as good as before; striving for quality improvement without being too demanding; rebuilding internal and external relationships; and creating the new “story” of the organisation.
Fortunately, I had a knowledgeable, committed and supportive chair and board, and support from the Scottish Funding Council. Without them, the task would have been impossible.
So what have we achieved? Well, we have reduced costs of delivery. The merger gave us the opportunity to reduce staffing through a funded voluntary severance scheme. Compared with the staff of the two separate colleges, the college now employs 25 per cent fewer people – and half the number of senior managers – but delivers more or less the same volume of activity. We can live, for now at least, with the reduced funding.
We have increased full-time student numbers, and having one college makes it easier to maintain relationships with local authorities and universities. We are included in regional talks about economic and social policy and our reputation is stronger. We are in a good position to face a challenging future.
Rob Wallen is principal of North East Scotland College