An appeal for renewed focus on Scotland’s Colleges

In 2007-8 the SNP majority government began a programme of the most wide ranging and devastating changes to Scotland’s Further and Higher education colleges in living memory. The reasons for the changes were well rehearsed at the time and continue to be reiterated: we needed to cut our cloth in response to the UK Conservative government’s austerity agenda; Scottish education had to better respond to the changing needs of business, communities and learners; College estates were crumbling and a more long-term, cost effective strategy was essential to create learning environments fit for the 21st century; too much resource was being wasted on repetition, duplication and low quality, non-certificated and by inference, sometimes frivolous activities. The message was clear; Scotland’s Colleges were a basket case and the SNP was going to sort it out.

Lost in the halcyon predictions of a bright new future were the inconvenient facts that under the Labour led administration of 2002-07 there had been a real terms increase in College funding, significant improvements to estates and a raising of student achievement and retention.

Student feedback told us that local access to high quality part-time as well as full-time vocational and access courses was an important offer to those who had to work while studying, those with caring or parental responsibilities and older learners who wanted to upskill or change direction.

During the period 2007-2015 funding was cut by 20%, colleges merged from 37 to 20, staff numbers were reduced by over 9% and student enrolments slashed by 152,000. This impacted more on women than men and discriminated against older people and those whose need was for a longer or more tailored learning journey because of social disadvantage, family circumstance, poverty, illness or disability.

Amongst the provisions that were severely cut or axed were: British Sign Language; discrete provision for students with a visual impairment, and those with learning difficulties; outreach, including with mental health agencies; ESOL for those whose first language is not English; Access to Higher Education for older students and “exceptional entry” for under 16’s. It is clear that those cuts where they occurred affected groups whose rights should have been protected by Equalities legislation, staff as well as students. There has been row-back in some of these areas, but there is no evidence that any formal Equalities Risk Assessment was done at a national level, nor that government issued any more than the bare minimum advice to Colleges that restructures should be mindful of their impact on protected groups.

You may agree that the SNP restructure of Scotland’s Colleges was a travesty but also think, ruefully, that the clock can’t be turned back and it’s all water under the bridge; and in any case, how can fewer colleges with smaller capacities now be expanded to accommodate all of those lost 152,000 student places? You might also ask if there is sufficient justification to return to arguments of the past when there are so many current and emerging challenges for Scottish Labour in our present?

The SNP certainly believe they still need to defend and even extol their policies in this area. As recently as January 2018, they posted a bulletin on the party website propagandising about the health of Scotland’s Colleges under their guardianship.

They say:

  • “In 2018-19, the colleges budget will increase in real terms.”

 They don’t say that just over half of that 5% increase is on one single capital project or that the underlying financial health of Scotland’s colleges is deteriorating with four facing particular challenges to their sustainability. In addition, National Bargaining, a SNP manifesto commitment from 2011, has still not happened and could cost £80m over the next 3 years.

  • “Almost 95% of college leavers go into further study, training or work.”

They don’t say that student retention and achievement is down and is lower for full-time than part-time students. Many leave for employment before their course ends because they can’t afford to stay.

  • “12,000 more students are on full-time courses.”

That is the total number between 2008 and 2016 and accounts for a mere 1.2% average annual increase. They don’t say that all enrolments are now decreasing with part-time enrolments going down at an even faster rate, or that, due to changing demographics, most of those reductions have been in the 16-24 age group, the stated priority cohort. They also don’t say that younger learners are failing to meet their learning targets at a growing rate.

In August 2017 John Swinney pressurised Audit Scotland to delete a reference to a 41% drop in college student headcount since 2007-08.

 Colleges can’t meet demand for places. In 2007, 36% of applicants failed to gain a place. We have no national statistic for unsuccessful applicants today because, we are told, there isn’t a national system in place to measure it. With 152,000 lost places and a 41% drop in headcount it would be reasonable to assume a significantly greater percentage now than then want to go to their local college and are sent away with nothing.

 Where our colleges are concerned, the Scottish Government has never ceased defending the indefensible.

Since at least 2015, the SNP administration has been investigating aspects of the College experience, arguably so it could mitigate some of its more negative aspects. For instance, the First Minister is known to be considering a relaxation of the targets for full-time college enrolments to allow more part-time. They have also commissioned an Independent Review of Student Financial Support in Scotland which produced its report in November 2017.

The Review outlined the current funding models for students which is heavily weighted in favour of those on full-time Higher Education courses, broadly HNC and above, who have access to the full range of student loans or grants. Students on National Certificate Further Education courses or part-time learners do not have access to the same funds, and those they can apply for are of smaller monetary value and yet are more stringently monitored. They may apply to a college means-tested Discretionary Fund which often stipulates a 95% attendance rate or lose a month’s money. If they are 16-19 they might qualify for the Education Maintenance Allowance which gives means-tested students £30 a week for 100% attendance. In stark contrast to their HE peers, FE students have only those two sources of support they might qualify for. FE and part-time students still have rent to pay, food and clothes to buy and may have children or other caring responsibilities. They may also have a disability that means they need specialist or adaptive equipment for studying, but they are barred from applying for a Disabled Student Allowance.

Amongst the findings of the Independent Review were the following:

  • Too many people have to leave FE to find a job because they can’t afford to stay.
  • 40% of students felt the financial support available did not meet their needs.
  • 70% had to work more than the recommended maximum 10 hours per week to cover their outgoings.
  • 14% borrowed to top up their income, some with pay-day loans and credit card advances.
  • Work placements were often not funded to cover additional travel costs, clothing requirements and equipment.
  • Students from the lowest income backgrounds leave with the most debt.
  • Care experienced students needed summer support which was not available.

The UK Conservative government reforms to social security benefits illustrate the contempt in which that party hold our poorest, most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens who apparently aren’t to be trusted with tax payers’ money and whose access to funds must be guarded behind multiple barriers with any failure to comply resulting in draconian punishment. This class-based disdain is also at play in our inferior funding for FE as opposed to HE students and, sad to say, it has represented the status quo in post school education for more than a generation.

The Independent Review offered a solution to this inequity by proposing a minimum student income of £8,100 for all FE and HE students, plus means-tested bursaries for the poorest students. They suggest ways to partly cost this which is worthy of forensic exploration elsewhere but for now let’s rest where the review suggests a fundamental rebalance to rectify the inequality and class discrimination that currently exist in the contrasts between FE and HE students.

So far, there has been little or no public discourse around this review but this government has a history of paying for advice and ignoring it when it doesn’t suit and if it is too timid to air the Review’s findings and recommendations perhaps Scottish Labour should.

The “Poverty Tsar”, Naomi Eisenstadt, has written of the “fundamental unfairness” in Scotland where the life chances of youngsters depend on the wealth and social class of their parents. With damning understatement she spoke of how the potential for the college sector to reduce socio-economic inequality has been “under-explored” and that “the overall picture suggest that the universities sector has had greater protection from hard financial times than FE and the College sector.” Ms Eisenstadt speaks of clear class discrimination.

Elsewhere, in the excellent Industrial Strategy for Scotland, produced by Scottish Labour under Richard Leonard’s new leadership, the importance of a skilled workforce is a stated priority and Universities Scotland is named as a key partner. Scotland’s College sector, however, is not explicitly mentioned. It should have been.

Our local colleges absolutely underpin our local economies, adapting and responding to the needs of industry, commerce and services in a dynamic way. They support Retail, IT, Administration, Care, Social Services, Leisure, Construction, Catering, Engineering, Rural and Agricultural sectors. They sit in the heart of our communities and play an important role in lifelong learning and social inclusion agendas. Currently hobbled by a 20% reduction in funding and 152,000 fewer places, an iniquitous student funding model and a government shackled to its own failing model, this is the time for Scottish Labour to be a champion for Scotland’s Colleges. This should be our bailiwick.

Linda Craw

formerly Head of Access and Progression

Forth Valley College






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