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INSIDE TRACK: Colleges are ill-served by a body that keeps quiet

ONE of the most dispiriting meetings I have attended in recent years was with a senior official from the body representing Scottish colleges.

The coffee was fresh and the company pleasant, but discussions over whether our joint interests in the future of the further education sector might overlap were not so productive.

While there was much discourse over the parlous state of college finances, the rapid restructuring being put in place by the Scottish Government and the severe cuts in staff and student numbers, at the meeting's end, when the courteous handshakes were over, it dawned on me that I was unlikely ever to hear from the individual again.

The representative from Colleges Scotland, I realised, had viewed the meeting as an exercise in "meeting a journalist" rather than as part of a planned strategy to raise the public profile of the sector at a time of crisis.

And so it proved. Routine requests for comment on significant developments were often replied to in such a banal fashion as to make them unusable. Sometimes they were simply refused.

It was the same for other media outlets. The strategy seemed to be to avoid publicity, even as college principals themselves began to voice private concerns that the inability to speak with a collective voice was hampering the fight against cuts - in sharp contrast to the effective lobbying of higher education body Universities Scotland. Most worryingly, it suggested a fear of upsetting the Scottish Government ministers who held the purse strings.

Working with journalists is certainly no cure-all. Indeed, it can be a risky process, with the best advice on the matter not to impart any information of significance until a reporter has been identified who is not interested in burning bridges for the sake of a sensationalist story. But surely any public relations professional worth their salt would tell you that speaking to the media on a routine basis is an essential part of a strategy to put pressure on Government ministers to change policy.

Even the Colleges Scotland website reflects this priority, saying it supports the sector by ensuring its views are heard and interests represented by "securing strong parliamentary and media representation".

Last week, Colleges Scotland was the subject of a major restructuring that has seen its role as a representative, campaigning organisation underlined, with the additional daunting task of taking on the implementation of a new national pay-bargaining process.

From now on, Colleges Scotland will be led by a new board comprising the chairs from the 13 new regional college entities along with four elected college principals.

Some have already suggested this structure may not be nimble enough to distil the competing interests of a membership encompassing small rural community colleges and those serving large urban areas, but its chairman, former First Minister Henry McLeish, believes it can play a stronger role in influencing Scotland's educational future. A priority is to find its public voice.

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