Further education colleges rarely feature high on the political agenda.
The role of colleges is to pick up the work no-one else wants at low cost and deliver constantly changing priorities without complaint. So the stramashes over spending plans and the privacy (or not) of meetings have been a jolt, bringing the sector out of the recesses where it is normally left.
No-one in the sector would have chosen the reasons or occasion for this attention. Kirk Ramsay has, of course, quit as chairman of Stow College in Glasgow after Michael Russell called for his resignation for recording a meeting of sector heads with the Education Minister. Should it be shame on Mr Ramsay for thinking the Minister's message mattered enough to be recorded and replayed to others?
Mr Russell's words do matter, particularly when he is cutting funding, imposing new targets, forcibly merging colleges and dumping 250 or so unpaid members of college boards of management. His intentions should be open and clear, if only to make it easier for his new, salaried chairmen and women of regional boards to know what they are expected to deliver.
The Minister has guaranteed to maintain places for students and achieve efficiencies without compulsory redundancies. But how can colleges do this at a time of drastic cuts in funding, a demand for better "outcomes", and a clumsy upheaval in the sector's organisation?
Don't ask Mr Russell's advisers or the chief executive of the £8 million a year Scottish Funding Council, or SFC (who, when asked what the spending plans for 2013-14 would buy, told the Scottish Parliament Education Committee last month that he was waiting to be told by the Minister and, rather conveniently, got Mr Russell's letter of "guidance" for 2013-14 two days day later). Unfortunately the Minister's evidence to the Education Committee later in the month simply stirred a statistical soup with more vehemence than clarity.
What really matters is that the SNP Government's cuts to funding for teaching in colleges are drastic. The Scottish Parliament Information Centre's briefing on the Draft Budget for 2013-14 confirmed that, in real terms, the SFC revenue budget for colleges will continue to fall by 1.5% from financial year 2012/13 to 2013/14 and a further 11.6% the year following.
In fairness, one should acknowledge that colleges will be able to bid over the two years for £24 million of what was previously their own money from Skills Development Scotland. It is also possible that better sense will again prevail – if late in the day – and "budget revisions" will bring funding and political claims more into balance.
So just how do colleges cut costs by more than 13% and still maintain volume and quality of teaching ? The traditional politician's answer – going back to the unlamented John Major Government and Michael Forsyth, his man in Scotland – is by increasing efficiencies and fee income from employers. Under Mr Russell's stated plans, the new college regions will be expected to make "efficiency savings" of no more than around 6% in academic year 2013-14 with further (but unspecified) efficiency savings in 2014-15.
In reality, efficiencies in colleges mean cuts in the duration and choice of courses available to students and employers, and cuts in the unit costs of teaching (fewer and larger classes). These cuts in teaching activity will then have to be deeper to pay for voluntary redundancies of staff because of regionalisation, and for standardising rates of pay to the highest denominator under national pay bargaining – unless, of course, the SNP Government proves unexpectedly willing to underwrite the true costs of its policies.
Mr Russell should get over his grudges against Tory policies of the 1980s and 1990s and refocus on the vision of "opportunity for all", on which Scotland had been leading since devolution. Marching backwards to the beat of the EIS union drum and the prejudices of a few hostile advisers is unfair to the college sector and, much more importantly, to its students and staff. If cuts must be made, at least let the colleges work out what is best with what remains for their students and staff.
Tom Kelly is the former chief executive of the Association of Scotland's Colleges.
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