Older students ‘squeezed out’ by education reforms

Mandy Exley: surprised by the rapid pace of change. Picture: Serge Bertasius
Mandy Exley: surprised by the rapid pace of change. Picture: Serge Bertasius
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OLDER students and those studying part-time are being squeezed out of the country’s colleges by the Scottish Government’s rush to reform the sector, it has been warned.

Addressing the Scottish Parliament’s education committee yesterday, college principals said the government’s new focus on vocational opportunities for 16 to 19 year olds meant older students are losing out on opportunities to study.

Their appearance at the committee came ahead of a debate on the SNP’s budget at Holyrood today, with those in the sector hopeful more money will be found for colleges, reversing plans for a £34.6 million budget cut over the next year.

While broadly welcoming the government’s regionalisation strategy, which is seeking to reduce the overall number of colleges through a series of mergers, Mandy Exley, principal of the recently formed Edinburgh College, told MSPs on the education committee that she had been surprised by the rapid pace of change.

And she said increased government control of the college sector and a focus on teenagers meant older students and those studying non-vocational part-time courses were likely to suffer.

“We are not suggesting for one minute that level of planning is not important, but at the end of the day, the life-long learning agenda is hugely important to us,” she told MSPs.

“What we want to be clear about is autonomy to be responsive to what’s needed at a point in time. A level of central planning and diktat can lead to unintended consequences.”

Susan Walsh, principal and chief executive of Cardonald College, said the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament, lacked an “underpinning philosophy”.

Meanwhile, Carol Turnbull, principal of Dumfries and Galloway College, and Paul Sherrington, principal of Banff and Buchan College, said their institutions had been forced to prioritise learning for full-time students over those studying part-time following cuts to their budgets.

Speaking after yesterday’s meeting, Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “In effect, the principals are warning that these proposals could undermine the significant progress that the college sector has made in recent decades to cater for the needs of a much more diverse student body and to raise standards of education across the board.

“Having already been at the receiving end of deeply damaging college cuts, the further education sector is now being told to rush headlong into an expensive programme of reforms for which there is little evidence of educational advantage.”

Lib Dem education spokesman Liam McArthur added: “The complexity and pace of these reforms are challenging enough. However, they are made almost impossible to manage successfully by the depth and scale of the funding cuts being applied by (education secretary) Michael Russell.

“College principals also expressed serious concerns about the extent to which the education secretary is looking to interfere in the day-to-day running of the sector. It was suggested that the more central planning and diktat from ministers, the greater the likelihood of unintended consequences.”

The National Union of Students (NUS) said more than 5,000 people had now sent a total of almost 45,000 emails to their local MSPs as part of its campaign calling on the Scottish Government to reverse proposed cuts to the college budget.

Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland said: “Ahead of the budget vote, close to 45,000 emails have been delivered to MSPs asking the Scottish Parliament to protect colleges and reverse the £34.6m cut.

“The SNP may have a majority, but as they said themselves after the election, they do not have a monopoly on wisdom. It’s time to translate those welcome words into action, by listening to opposition MSPs across the parliament, and thousands who have been in touch with MSPs, and reverse the £34.6m cut to colleges.”