Issue 6

CHILL WINDS BLOW ON FURTHER EDUCATION

By Dave Watson, Head of Bargaining and Campaigns, UNISON Scotland

Budget cuts and centralisation are the wrong approach for Scotland’s Further Education sector. A strong economy needs a skilled workforce and colleges are just as important as universities in delivering a fairer, more prosperous Scotland.

Local delivery of courses is crucial to people embarking and finishing their further education and training.

At least the Scottish government now admit that college budgets have been cut. The total budget in 2013/14 is now £522m compared to £555.7 in 2011/12. As jobs are lost across Scotland, many adults are looking to retrain or gain additional skills and young people look to college to gain the skills needed in a difficult jobs market. Colleges face increased demand with substantially less resources.

UNISON represents staff in every part of the education sector: nurseries, schools, colleges and universities. Members are also service users as parents or students themselves looking to gain new skills and better jobs. Alongside other trade unions, UNISON has been promoting and delivering lifelong learning in the workplace and supporting members to take up opportunities in further and higher education. It is therefore not just as the representatives of staff in further education colleges that UNISON is a key stakeholder in this field.

Further education is facing rising demand with less money. The Scottish Government’s response has been to prioritise full-time students. Colleges themselves have sought to merge to save money and as a response to plans for regionalisation. UNISON is concerned about the equality impacts of centralisation caused by mergers and cuts in part-time provision. Colleges need to offer places to people of all ages. Few people are able to give up work in such risky job market, so part-time courses are crucial to those who want to gain new skills. The high cost of childcare also means that mothers trying to get back to work need to find jobs that pay well enough to make work pay. Part-time courses allow them to gain the qualifications they need and combine education with their caring responsibilities.

A key value of college courses is that they can be undertaken close to home. This cuts down on travel and childcare costs: key barriers to those on low incomes accessing and completing courses. Travelling long distances also adds to childcare costs as children have to be looked after longer. Some young people also lack the confidence to undertake study out with their own areas. Transport links are often poor which makes it difficult and expensive to travel. There is also the added issue for young men who often face or fear violence when they travel out with their own communities. Local delivery of courses is crucial to people embarking and finishing their further education and training.

While Mike Russell claims that colleges are merging voluntarily, in fact it’s a response to his plans. The regionalisation proposal, overtaken by events, is about making savings rather than improving delivery. Scotland will soon find itself with only 13 colleges. This will make it much harder to respond to the demands of Scotland’s diverse communities. It is clear that there is still a hope that moving to a shared service approach to service delivery will make the kind of savings needed to maintain service levels with cuts in funding. There is little evidence to justify this hope. In further education the non teaching roles (e.g. librarians, finance staff, and welfare staff) risk being pushed into a “big shed” delivery model when they require face-to-face contact with students. Even big business is starting to look again at outsourcing as the loss of responsiveness, particularly for core business activities like finance, outweighs the savings made. Despite the hype very few savings have been achieved through shared services in the public sector. Where they have been achieved its takes about five years and savings are made by job cuts.

The sector is vital to our economic future and that requires adequate funding. Colleges need to change to meet future challenges, but that change should be determined in communities and in consultation

Cuts in funding and mergers are leading to centralisation and cutting of courses. UNISON’s FOIs revealed a long list of course closures including vocational courses like HNC Electrical Engineering, HND Mechanical Engineering HND Applied Sports Science, HND Sports Coaching x2, NQ 3D Design Foundation and HNC Professional Cookery, Some colleges are also cutting opening hours reducing the flexible learning opportunities so vital to those combing work, caring responsibilities and study.

For UNISON members in FE the biggest concerns about college mergers are job losses and the pressure for a race to the bottom for the terms and conditions of staff in the new bodies. Merging is also time consuming and focuses the institutions inwardly on structures rather than delivering services. Over 900 less people are working in FE this year than last and the total for severance packages for the last two years is almost £25million. Money that should have been spent on delivery is going on redundancy packages.

Merging colleges in recent years has been difficult for the staff concerned. Consultation with staff has been minimal and the key staffing issues have been unresolved long after mergers have been pushed through. Members are very clear that they do not recognise the picture painted of the merger process that created Glasgow College as painted in the documents produced by management and now used to promote further mergers. Many of the key staffing issues were still being negotiated years after the merger. College boards have little contact with staff and having union reps on the new boards, as proposed for Universities, would improve this situation. But again colleges are treated as second class institutions. There is no reason why staff in the different sectors should have different voices on college boards. If changes on this scale are to be made than the staffing issues have to be resolved as part of the change so the new bodies can focus properly on delivery. The people who deliver services cannot be an afterthought - it is they not structures that deliver improvement and increased efficiency.

These are tough times for college staff and students. The sector is vital to our economic future and that requires adequate funding. Colleges need to change to meet future challenges, but that change should be determined in communities and in consultation with users and the staff. Sadly the current reform is top down, centralising delivery and reducing choice. Meanwhile the Christie Commission report and its call for bottom up change is gathering dust on a shelf in Bute House.

By Dave Watson, Head of Bargaining and Campaigns, UNISON Scotland

Issue 6

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