Agricultural colleges plan merger as ‘rural university’

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A “RURAL university college for Scotland” is set to be created by the merger of four of the country’s further and higher education institutions.

The Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) looks set to merge with three “land-based” colleges in a process which would affect thousands of students.

Discussions about a possible merger were already under way between the SAC and both Elmwood College in Fife and Oatridge in West Lothian, but they have now been joined by Barony College in Dumfries.

While all the colleges are likely to retain their regional bases, the move would lead to a reduction in the number of courses being duplicated across the four institutions.

It comes as education secretary Michael Russell prepares to meet college principals amid concerns about the sector’s funding being cut. Colleges have been told to explore mergers as a possible way of reducing costs.

Barony College principal Russell Marchant said: “These are challenging times for tertiary education in Scotland, but we are convinced the merger will offer positive benefits and exciting developments for the industries and students we aim to serve.”

At present, the SAC, which is defined as a university, has its main base in Edinburgh, while Elmwood is based in Cupar and Oatridge in Broxburn.

The institutions offer courses in agriculture and animal care, as well as in fields such as hospitality management and sport and cater for more than 10,000 full- and part-time students.

The colleges said the commitment to merging was a “significant development” for land-based education in Scotland.

In a joint statement, they said: “We are committed to a new model for Scotland of an innovative, integrated model of academic and practical expertise, using the strengths of all partners in the transfer of knowledge to and from partners, stakeholders and the industry.”

Earlier this week, Mr Russell said he was ready to meet colleges over concerns raised about the level of funding available.

Colleges have been told to look at mergers as a way of saving money, after seeing the funds they receive from the Scottish Funding Council reduced by 13.5 per cent over the next three years. Principals have warned they are facing a “bleak future”.

Mr Russell said: “This planned merger is excellent news. Its aim of bringing together the distinctive contributions of Elmwood, Oatridge and SAC to improve the experience of learners is very much in tune with my thinking.”