The college merger programme has benefited students and led to big efficiency savings but staff and learners still have concerns about the impact of the move, the first evaluations of the project say.
Reports reviewing the mergers that created West College Scotland and Fife College in 2013, find that the two new colleges are now better able to work with companies to provide the correct skills for the local economy and make students employable.
Between them, the colleges have already made savings of more than £15 million, according to the assessment from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).
The conclusion comes just days after the EIS teaching union, which represents college lecturers, said that the merger process to date has failed to deliver educational improvements.
The sector is also currently facing the first national industrial action in decades over pay.
The post-merger evaluations are the first in a series of eight to be published, each assessing one of the recent college mergers.
According to the SFC, most of the staff at West College thought that the merger had been quick and challenging, but ultimately successful, and there was good progress made towards a “one-college culture”.
However, the report did highlight “some staff perception issues” at the Greenock campus, where teaching staff felt that provision had been “reduced or moved” or that budgets and meetings were “biased towards the Paisley campus”.
At Fife College, the SFC concluded that there was now “improved and more effective partnership working and collaboration opportunities”. However, the report also said that recent moves by Fife College to reduce the size of its estate and its salary bill had raised student concerns about “course and bursary application systems, unsuitable facilities and a perceived lack of communication from the principal and senior team”.
Staff also voiced concerns about the impact the voluntary severance scheme had on staff numbers and expertise at the college, it says.
Nevertheless, the SFC said that the merger had resulted in a single college which aimed to deliver “coherently” across west and east Fife, alongside the local authority, the NHS, the local chamber of commerce and a university.
‘A very different experience’
However, in its evidence to the education committee last week, the EIS said it was clear that a large majority of its members working in recently merged colleges believed that the intended benefits set out by the government had not been realised.
General secretary Larry Flanagan said the merger programme had been touted as a means of delivering a leaner, more efficient further education sector that would reduce duplication and deliver so-called efficiency savings.
“Unfortunately, the experience for students and staff has been very different, with cuts to staffing, course provision and places, as well as reductions in student support over the past few years.”
The Scottish government’s regionalisation agenda led to the creation of 13 college regions. It was designed to deliver provision that is more closely aligned to regional need, more effective governance and improved progression routes for learners. It was hoped that around £50 million would be saved through efficiencies. The figure would appear on the books from this financial year onwards, education secretary Angela Constance said last week.
A spokeswoman for Fife College said that the merger had progressed well, but also acknowledged “that many challenges still lie ahead as we embed new systems and processes and improve the overall learning experience for students across the region”.
She said there were “exciting times” ahead as it looked forward to opening a new campus in Levenmouth this summer and a new campus in the Dunfermline area, planned for 2019.
West College principal Audrey Cumberford, said the college was delighted by the report’s findings. “I am pleased that the report acknowledges our role as a leader in the West region.
“Working with five local authorities, local employers and schools, as well as hosting the Developing the Young Workforce Regional Group shows that we are leading from the front,” she added.
How much did they save?
The government estimate of annual efficiency savings from mergers in Scotland is £50 million. Savings from the West College Scotland and Fife College mergers to July 2015 are:
West College Scotland
Total savings: £8,100,000
Staff reduction through voluntary redundancy: 170.
Total savings: £7,144,966
Staff reduction through voluntary redundancy: 145.