Only just over a year has passed since former first minister Henry McLeish stepped down as chair of the Glasgow Colleges’ Regional Board amid controversy over its finances. Stepping into his shoes, Margaret Cook is keen to turn over a new leaf.
Since its birth nearly three years ago, the GCRB has been plagued by concerns over its governance arrangements and high staffing bills, which cost the city’s three colleges nearly £400,000 annually.
But now the board, which is based in offices at City of Glasgow College’s campus, employs only two people in addition to the chair, dispelling concerns over swelling staff numbers in previous years.
“We do not intend to build an empire,” Ms Cook, a former HR director, told TESS in an exclusive first interview. “There is no need for an empire. We get the services we require from the three colleges – governance from Kelvin, finance from City and HR from Clyde. The alternative is that we top-slice a huge amount of money from the three colleges, and that is not sustainable.”
‘The past is the past’
The board was created in 2013 as part of the government’s regionalisation agenda, under which colleges across the country merged in a bid to create larger, more efficient structures.
Glasgow is now one of only three of the country’s 13 regions with more than one college, having reduced its total from seven to three through mergers.
However, the college region has since been plagued by criticism of McLeish’s reign and a lack of accountability, as well as the crisis at Glasgow Clyde College, which led to the removal of its entire board by then education secretary Angela Constance.
“The past is the past, we are where we are and we have to move on. The next crucial step is the strategy for Glasgow,” said Ms Cook (pictured, inset). “I understand people’s reluctance to have a regional board. The colleges have always worked well together, but there is no strategy for Glasgow, there is no strategic planning at that level. There needs to be something that brings the three institutions together.”
Over the past few months, there have been “dramatic changes” to the board, according to Ms Cook, with the appointment of new members and the return of others who left last year because of concerns about governance under Mr McLeish. Glasgow director of education Maureen McKenna has rejoined, Ms Cook said. “We are a part of the city and it is important to have the education director as part of the board,” she added. “It is crucial that we have that relationship with our stakeholders.”
The purpose of the regional board was to bridge the gap between the Scottish Funding Council and individual colleges, she said, as well as offering a strategy for further education in the city – something crucial that was currently missing.
Robin Ashton, the board’s new executive director, said that despite negative headlines over the years, the Glasgow college region was a success story. “We are now in a position where we are working from new buildings, have more provision in communities, provision is better aligned to economic needs and more school pupils are using pathways from school through colleges to university,” he added. “Colleges were working on these but I don’t think we would have seen the results you have seen now without regionalisation.”
Neither Ms Cook nor Mr Ashton believe that there is currently a need to reduce the number of colleges in Glasgow further.
“There is no imperative to change that,” Ms Cook said. “Nobody is pushing for one or two colleges in Glasgow. There are courses you can do in all three colleges. That is not necessarily bad because it is about local delivery, rather than regional. It is about what is appropriate for the students.”