How the Scottish Government's vision for colleges could backfire

‘Centres of excellence’ model will leave some students stranded

The Scottish Government has suggested recently that it would like some of the nation’s under-pressure colleges to focus more on becoming “centres of excellence”.

In the case of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), the further and higher education minister, Graeme Dey, said there needed to be more collaboration between colleges, while “recognising that you might not be able to deliver every discipline in every specific locality”.

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This kind of direction is no doubt being considered as part of a restructuring exercise that is under way at UHI, where some of the partner colleges face significant financial challenges.

It sounds good on paper, and will no doubt make the bean-counters happy. But what are the practical implications for students?

The Scotsman has today featured the case of Troy Smith, an 18-year-old disabled man who recently found out the course he applied for had been cancelled, with UHI Shetland apparently suggesting instead that he study a course at UHI Orkney.

Some Shetland residents may be in a position to continue their education in Orkney, or another part of the Highlands and Islands, but many will not be, including Mr Smith, who is undergoing a medical procedure.

There are other concerning aspects to the case, but Mr Smith’s situation offers a worrying glimpse into the future for learners seeking to continue their studies or training at their local college, whether they have disabilities or not.

The courses and staff just might not be there any more in many locations, as cash-strapped institutions make cuts and move towards becoming centres of excellence, focused only on specific fields of study.

This may make sense in parts of the Central Belt, where travelling distances to different colleges are sometimes similar.

In the Highlands and Islands, there can be little doubt the logistics of being asked to study at another location, potentially hundreds of miles away, will put many off continuing their education or training. Online learning might be an option for some, but not everyone.

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And there is a real danger that those most likely to be impacted are the people the Government says it wants to “widen access” to, including those with disabilities and those from poorer backgrounds.



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