Bill Gemmell: Today’s further education is in a Dickens of a situation

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AS WE enter into the festive period, I am reminded of Charles Dickens’s sentient novella, A Christmas Carol. The alignment of this story to the further education sector in Scotland is worthy of mention.

We have Bob Cratchett, the college principal, trying hard to make ends meet in hard times. Tiny Tim, a small learning unit, Ebeneezer Scrooge, figuratively the controller of budgets and funds, and finally, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. To paraphrase the preface of the novel: I endeavour in this ghostly little note to raise the ghost of an idea which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly.

First chime: Behold the Ghost of Christmas past. Times were jolly. Funds were accessible and colleges were geographically aligned. Students came from close by and chose the collegiate route to a career, supply and demand were made to balance. Ebeneezer helped Bob carry out his role, taking the young to qualification. It was unfortunate not every student completed their journey, but at least Bob had tried and why penalise him for that?

The second chime: Bob finds times are harder now. The expansion of the colleges to meet all demands locally has backfired as the world becomes a smaller place and less supportive of three schools in one street. Ebeneezer is now a scrooge: why pay for the same thing twice or more? He demands consolidation; more from less. Smaller portions become the norm. Tiny Tim is getting sick.

The clock chimes thrice: Times are bad. Competition has turned the new house into a “bleak house”. You can barely recognise the Cratchetts. And what of Tiny Tim? Long gone I’m afraid, the dream of more from less has failed and Ebeneezer has ever-decreasing reserves and an alignment to many years of austerity.

However, changes can be made. Successful consolidation can be achieved economically, operationally, professionally, pedagogically. We need to look to “our mutual friend”. Characters who bring a broad experience of the world out with – carrying no baggage of the old but bringing in the assets necessary to build the colleges of the future.

• Bill Gemmell is a senior management consultant at Amor Group