Today Michael Russell, the Scottish Government's Education Secretary, will make some potentially far-reaching announcements about the future of further education colleges in Scotland, specifically about arrangements for governance.
This will follow hot on the heels of massive reductions in college funding which will most probably take colleges back to levels last experienced in the mid-1970s. The Educational Institute of Scotland has estimated that in the last year cuts have amounted to 36%. No other public service has experienced such a reduction in the UK, and it is expected there's more to come.
Mr Russell will pin his hopes on the college mergers, which he brokered, partly to offset material and real reductions. These are expected to yield savings arising from the anticipated "efficiencies".
However, the Auditor General for Scotland's recent report into the impact of public-sector mergers casts considerable doubt about the likelihood that such efficiencies will be achieved. Indeed the mega-merger of colleges in central Glasgow has yet to provide any evidence of consequential savings (there is, however, real evidence that an additional £50 million was pumped into the establishments involved during the three years prior to the merger, as a "sweetener".) These are surely efficiencies of a type which Scotland can ill afford in current financial circumstances.
Similarly, Mr Russell's mergers will lead to the establishment of new regional boards which will direct college strategies. This from a Government which, two years ago, promised a "bonfire of the quangos". At a time of financial hardship this will inevitably push resources from the college sector's teeth to its tail. Interestingly it is further understood that the chairs of these new boards will be remunerated and that they will be personally appointed by the Cabinet Secretary – without any reference to accepted public appointments procedures.
It is to be hoped this will not herald a return of patronage and nepotism in Scottish life which most had assumed had been banished more than a decade ago. It will be interesting to see whether or not these plans will attract the interest of the Auditor General or the Standards Commissioner.
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