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Reorganising Scotland’s colleges was a challenge but worthwhile, MSPs told

Glasgow’s nine colleges were reduced to three as part of the regionalisation move (Richard McCarthy/PA)
Glasgow’s nine colleges were reduced to three as part of the regionalisation move (Richard McCarthy/PA)

Reducing the number of colleges across Scotland was a “challenging” process that ultimately resulted in many benefits, a committee has heard.

Holyrood’s Education, Children and Young People Committee took evidence from a panel of principals and chief executives from various colleges on Tuesday as part of its colleges regionalisation inquiry.

Thirteen college regions were formed as part of the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Act 2013.

Mergers saw the country’s 41 colleges, recorded as of 2011, reduced to the current 26.

Derek Smeall, principal and chief executive of Glasgow Kelvin College, said the move allowed “institutions of size, of volume, of influence” to be established.

Mr Smeall told the committee that reducing Glasgow’s nine colleges down to three was “a challenging process, there’s no doubt about that, but there were many benefits that came out of that”.

“There’s no doubt that it resulted in improved working with universities, both locally and nationally, and in some cases internationally,” he told the committee.

“It certainly got us at the table in many aspects. We had the ability to get – over a period of years, I may add – some efficiencies of scale.”

But he told the committee he felt there had been a “missed opportunity” in limiting the regions to local authority boundaries, adding: “I think we’re wider than that.”

Ann Baxter, deputy principal for students and the curriculum at New College Lanarkshire, echoed the fact that collaboration is on a greater scale, highlighting work between the college and the local authority, the NHS and South Lanarkshire College.

The University of the Highlands and Islands has seen a “more coherent approach” to how the colleges within the institution work together as a result of regionalisation, said Sue MacFarlane, the interim principal for Outer Hebrides College.

“I think there were opportunities that we were able to benefit from. (We are) able to plan for economic benefits across the region, as the multi colleges,” Ms MacFarlane said.

There has also been a “much more joined up, consistent approach” to student support, she added.

Panel members, however, raised the issue of funding for colleges in Scotland.

Hugh Hall, principal and chief executive at Fife College, said there has been “lots of bureaucracy, lots of control, lots of constraints” due to colleges being taken into public sector control.

Mr Hall said that in his view, this was “the most damaging aspect of regionalisation”.

He told the committee: “Flexibilities were removed on regionalisation. I think colleges have been suffering as a consequence of that ever since.

“The inability to borrow, for example, means that we are totally dependent on Scottish Government for our capital infrastructure financing.

“The Scottish Government announced in 2014 there would be two new colleges: one in Falkirk, one in Dunfermline, but (are) only now putting the foundations down in Dunfermline.

“It’s been painful to say the least. Had we been a university with the ability to borrow, we would have been getting on with a lot of stuff like that.”

The committee also heard from Neil Cowie, principal and chief executive at North East Scotland College; Angela Cox, principal and chief executive at Ayrshire College; and Joanna Campbell, chief executive officer at Dumfries and Galloway College.