Issue 6

A NEW DEAL FOR SCOTLAND'S COLLEGES?

By Alison Payne, Research Director, Reform Scotland

On 14 June Reform Scotland published ‘A new deal for Scotland’s Colleges’. The report looks specifically at the Further Education sector in Scotland as it enters a new phase of regionalisation and considers what can be done to empower colleges, students and the communities they serve.

Our starting point was that colleges play a vital role in Scotland’s social and economic development by providing high quality teaching, by helping people into high value careers and by supporting industry to develop their workforce. Colleges are also a particularly important means of increasing social mobility.

However, in researching this report, it became clear that whilst there may be a perception that colleges are independent organisations, this is not really the case.  Professor Griggs noted in his review of Further Education in Scotland that “within the criteria applied variously by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR), the Office of National Statistics (ONS), and Her Majesty’s Treasury (HMT), colleges have been deemed to be public sector bodies”.  Indeed, as Griggs goes on to note, the only reason that colleges even have charitable status is because a ministerial exemption was made in 2007, otherwise they would fail the independence test.

…..colleges should be given far greater independence, and the college sector needed to be viewed more widely as a different choice to university, not a lesser one.

This, of course, is in stark contrast to the legal framework within which universities operate.  Universities are independent charities, not public bodies, but contract with the government to provide government-funded services.

Reform Scotland felt that this background highlighted two very important problems that we believed needed to be addressed if colleges were to flourish following regionalisation – namely that colleges should be given far greater independence, and the college sector needed to be viewed more widely as a different choice to university, not a lesser one.

When too much power resides at the centre, it can be difficult for individual bodies to develop distinctive and innovative approaches.  As a result, we believe that legislation is needed to remove colleges’ status as public bodies and enshrine them as fully independent charities, which would in turn enter into a contractual relationship with government to deliver certain services.

Such a change would not affect the government’s ability to ensure certain FE services were provided.  However, it would give the 13 regional colleges greater autonomy and independence to deliver courses and services in a way which best suits their local communities and students.  The ability to adopt different approaches is a key factor in ensuring our public services are able to respond to the different priorities and circumstances faced by the people they serve.  Increasing the autonomy of colleges is, therefore, essential to allow for diverse solutions to the different situations they face.  A one-size-fits-all approach will not work as we are a diverse nation.

If colleges were independent organisations they would be able to achieve charitable status in their own right, as universities do, rather than having to be deemed an exception to charities legislation.  Being independent bodies rather than government bodies would also allow them, as charities, to hold a financial surplus and reinvest it as they saw fit.

Furthermore, it is simply impossible to explain why, in Scotland, universities deserve a high level of independence and autonomy, but somehow colleges do not.

It is also worth highlighting that university education is best where universities are most free of government control.  This is why the US and the UK dominate the league tables.  If anything, universities would benefit from greater independence and what applies to Higher Education should apply to Further Education too.

…. it is simply impossible to explain why, in Scotland, universities deserve a high level of independence and autonomy, but somehow colleges do not.

We also believe that changes to the funding system could help students and colleges alike and our report recommended that young people aged between 16 and 19 should be able to use an entitlement, which would be equal to the value of the average cost of educating a child in their local authority area, to attend school or college.  This could allow pupils to choose to attend a college instead of school, either to sit traditional school qualifications such as Highers, or to take up vocational studies, or a mixture of both, with the money following the student.  This would bring benefits to a huge range of students from the most academic to those struggling at school. 

These recommendations would help give colleges the boost they need – freeing up the institutions to deliver not just what government wants, but also what students and communities want, whilst giving 16 to 19 years olds greater ability to choose the education environment which best meets their needs.  However, there also needs to be a greater pride taken in the work carried out by colleges.  Whilst as a nation we are quick to boast of the successes of our universities and schools, colleges are treated almost with a sense of shame – a perception which is worrying and wrong.  It is vital that pupils in school are given the information they need to make informed decisions about their future, rather than the stereotype that you only go to college if you can’t get into university.  Equally, just as university is not only for the more advantaged, college is not just for the more disadvantaged, but offers a range of educational opportunities regardless of background.

This week the Scottish Parliament will debate the final stage of the Post-16 legislation. Reform Scotland hopes that the issues we have outlined are considered so that in Scotland we can work towards giving colleges the greater autonomy they need, and deserve, to put them on an equal footing with universities, and giving young people greater choice about the form of education that best meets their needs.

By Alison Payne, Research Director, Reform Scotland

Issue 6

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