Tavish Scott: Colleges better without interference

Tavish Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
Tavish Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
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COLLEGES across Scotland provide further education for more than 260,000 people every year. They deliver 78 million hours of learning across a vast range of courses, and the institutions themselves are economically important – 11,600 people work in colleges.

A new centralised structure is now being put in place. In the capital, three colleges are now one. By the end of this year there will be 21 colleges across Scotland. In 1993 there were 43. Mergers are taking place across the country.

In the past, government funding flowed directly to a college. The Scottish Funding Council worked out what they needed to deliver courses based on local economic and educational needs. But in future, regional boards will make these crucial budget decisions. How this will be done is a question exercising many in the sector. Regional boards will comprise a representative of each college in the area. They will be chaired by a variety of the good and the great. The former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish, who pops up on many a Nationalist government commission, is to chair the Glasgow regional board.

Colleges are local institutions. They are best when acutely tuned to local economic needs. Businesses know which skills are needed. The challenge is to ensure that high schools and colleges work together to promote vocational training routes into work that meet those needs.

Do college mergers, which have been pushed very hard by central government, help businesses find the young men and women they need? How will funding follow the learner? Overall college funding has been cut by the Scottish Government.

The greater question is over college autonomy. Before the 2011 Scottish general election, the SNP said it would grant colleges the freedom to remain independent bodies. Flushed with an inbuilt parliamentary majority in Holyrood, the position was revered. The Post-16 Education Bill that has been whipped through parliament tightens rather than loosens ministerial control on the further education sector. Thus the drive to merge institutions. Thus the appointment of regional board chairs that will operate to a government agenda.

None of this looks local. It all appears to be financially driven rather than educationally motivated. Part of the Scottish Government’s agenda is that colleges are sitting on vast financial reserves. Edinburgh College’s finance director knocked that argument into touch in parliament recently by illustrating how reserves were earmarked for pension liabilities and the like. In short, the reserves argument is false.

Colleges need the operational independence to make good local decisions with local partners to provide learning that is needed. They can do that but would be all the more successful if they didn’t have the heavy hand of central government permanently on their shoulder.

• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland