Lecturers' 'no confidence' in Scottish college principal over plan to cut courses

A lecturers’ union has warned plans by a leading college to cut courses will put jobs at risk and harm the young people of Edinburgh, amid a campaign to force management into a U-turn.

More than 500 Edinburgh College lecturers who are part of the Further Education Lecturers’ Association (FELA) have passed a motion of no confidence in the institution’s principal, Audrey Cumberford, along with her senior management team, and urged them to withdraw the threat of redundancies.

Those behind the unanimous vote say the college’s cost-cutting proposals have put up to 180 individual lecturers at risk. “The plan will harm the young people of Edinburgh and our community in general,” they added.

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The college said the “proposed curriculum reshaping consultation” was designed to ensure its curriculum fits with the region’s skills needs. The institution added it was committed to working “openly and honestly” with staff.

It comes as auditors warned the college’s financial forecasts indicate savings of more than £5 million will be required by 2025/26. It is one of several colleges across the country facing up to major cost-cutting packages to address of a lack of funding.

The lecturers have questioned the college’s plans to axe all its events teaching, pointing out the city is globally renowned for its festivals, as well as an established conference destination. The lecturers also say proposals to cut the college’s stonemasonry course would have a detrimental impact on students from less well-off backgrounds.

“In the past, colleges had an obligation to provide education and opportunities for the communities they serve and the working-class students who attend,” the lecturers pointed out. “If this plan goes through, that will be a thing of the past.”.

The college branch of FELA, a self-governing organisation within the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) union, has urged members of the public and politicians to put pressure on the college’s management to re-think their plans and withdraw the threat of redundancies.

Edinburgh College said a 'proposed curriculum reshaping' consultation is underway.

They added: “We accept that the curriculum is not fixed, but the college has always managed to adapt using voluntary severance schemes. The EIS is happy to engage in discussion and to campaign for adequate funding of the college to meet the needs of the Edinburgh community.”

The college, which has campuses in Granton, Midlothian, Sighthill and Milton Road, is under financial pressure to make ends meet. According to the latest annual audit plan for the institution, prepared by Audit Scotland, the college’s financial forecasts for 2022/23 to 2025/26 shows cumulative savings of £5.1m will be required to achieve its projected break-even ‘adjusted operating position’ in each of the four years.

Audit Scotland said “there is a risk that the college is not able to achieve the forecast savings and its financial position worsens as a result.” It added: “This could impact its cash flows and operations.”

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The annual audit plan also noted while the Scottish Government provided a flat cash settlement to the college sector for 2022/23, that resulted in a 3.6 per cent reduction in the funding allocation for Edinburgh College.

According to the college’s most recent accounts, covering the 12 months to July 31, 2021, the college’s income of £70.3m was outstripped by its expenditure (£76.9m). However, once unrealised surpluses on revaluations and actuarial in respect of pension schemes were taken into account, it posted a total comprehensive income of £20.6m.

The accounts note “the board of management recognises that the most significant risk to the college relates to financial sustainability and the college’s ability to manage its activities and deliver its outcomes within the current funding environment”. Some 39 employees left the college that year under voluntary severance arrangements, receiving compensation packages totalling £736,000.

In a foreword to the accounts, Ms Cumberford, whose remuneration package rose over the period from between £165,000 to £170,000 to £190,000 to £195,000, described it as “one of the most challenging” years in the college’s history, but said it was “emerging stronger.” She added “it has never been more crucial for us, as a college, to work with partners to address the skills gaps and support the development, upskilling and reskilling of workforces across the city and country”.

A spokeswoman for Edinburgh College said: “A proposed curriculum reshaping consultation through an initial voluntary severance scheme is currently underway at our college.

“We continue to align our curriculum with the skills needs of our region and the people and partners we serve. We have undertaken a detailed review of the current curriculum, including data driven analysis of skills needs in the economy and student demand, to best inform any proposed plans for reshaping our curriculum offer.

She added: “In addition, our college, along with all colleges in Scotland, are facing significant financial challenges brought about through real-term cuts in funding and rising costs. It is important that we are responsive to the challenges we, and the sector, are facing in order to stabilise our financial position. We are committed to working openly and honestly with staff and are engaging with staff and meeting EIS-FELA representatives regularly throughout this time.”

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Last week, Glasgow Clyde College announced plans to cut jobs and working hours to save £2m as part of “urgent action” to tackle the “severe” impact of a lack of funding from the Scottish Government. In an email to staff, Jon Vincent, the college’s principal, said the plans were required to avoid a “significant deterioration” in the college’s financial situation.

His email stated the financial shortfall was a problem shared by “all colleges,” with work ongoing since the start of the academic year intended to develop plans to “address our financial situation”.

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