College chief warns of fewer staff and students

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LESS than a week after congratulating graduates and stressing the “significant” role of Borders College in the regional economy, principal Liz McIntyre was telling MSPs that funding cuts by the Scottish Government will mean more staff losses and cuts in student places.

Ms McIntyre was among a panel of academics from the further education sector giving evidence at Holyrood to the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party education and culture committee which sought to assess the impact of finance minister John Swinney’s three-year spending review.

Explicit in that announcement was a 13.5 per cent cut in the financial settlement for colleges – 20 per cent in real terms - over the spending review period.

And Ms McIntyre pulled no punches in assessing the impact of this hit, claiming there was no alternative but to reduce staffing costs. And while college jobs and student places will be shed on the altar of efficiency, she questioned the efficiency of having nine secondary schools, all offering sixth-year courses. “Should the funding perhaps be focused on the college which could meet the needs of a lot of different parts of the area?” she asked.

The college, which operates from six sites, including the shared campus with Heriot-Watt University in Galashiels, is the sole further education college and major provider of training in the region. It has an annual enrolment of around 6,000 students for a wide range of courses and programmes, both day and evening, to HND level and beyond, particularly in subject areas that will enable them to dovetail into local employment opportunities.

“As a rural college serving a relatively small population spread over a wide geographic area, Borders College has always had some quite difficult financial challenges,” said Ms McIntyre.

“It is more difficult to achieve economies of scale. We have to maintain a broad curriculum to ensure the local community is well served, so we have already had to operate quite an efficient model just to make the figures stack up.

“We had a 10 per cent cut last year and we will have to think hard and creatively about how we manage further cuts.

“For us, there will be difficult choices. We fully understand that, where there are scarce resources, prioritisation is essential. However, there will be conflicting priorities for us to deal with and that will be the case, even within our local areas, and we are aware that national or central priorities might not match up with our local priorities.

“Because of the nature of our region, we work closely with our local authority and our health board – coterminosity [sharing the same boundary] is strong in our area, which means we are important partners in delivery of the single outcome agreement.

“A lot of the things we are delivering are tied up with that. However, we will be forced to disappoint our other partners with our contribution in that regard.”

The principal warned: “We will have to reduce places, lose staff and turn away even more students than we already turn away.

“We have not been able to access additional funding over the past couple of a years and we are not eligible for European social fund money for additional places ... we have been trying to deal with diminishing resources for quite some time and we will not be able to sustain that.

She went on: “We can highlight a good of example of where collaboration with other sectors can create efficiencies. We share a campus with Heriot-Watt University; indeed, I think we were one of the first HE/FE partnerships to develop a wide range of shared services.

“We work closely with our local authority in which there are nine high schools, each of which runs a sixth year. Looking at the efficiency of education provision across our region, I would ask whether that is efficient.”

She added: “We are particularly concerned that the people who are furthest from education will suffer the most if there is a reduction in the number of places.

“The more pressure that is put on colleges to achieve outcomes, the more selective they are likely to become. If there are fewer places, colleges are likely to become more selective still. They will recruit the students who are most likely to succeed on their chosen course, so the lost generation will be the people who already have the fewest chances.

“This is a concern, particularly in the Borders where there is not really anywhere else for people to go.

“I think we all agree that the sector welcomes a reform agenda which will shift funding from the back room to the front line. Our concern is that we are not sure how we can achieve that shift alongside such a front-loaded, quick and deep cut to the budget.

“In the short term and in the current climate in which we are struggling for economic recovery and the impact of youth unemployment, we will not be able in 2011/12 and 2012/13 to meet demand for students and the budget challenges without having a direct impact on learners, however much reform might bring savings and efficiencies in the future.”

Asked by Labour MSP Jenny Marra if, given the proposed funding cut, she could guarantee she would not seek compulsory redundancies at Borders College, Ms McIntyre replied: “The short answer is no. We will, as we are required to by law, consider every possible avenue before we move to compulsory redundancies.

“We had 22 redundancies last year of which 11 were voluntary and 11 compulsory. We have moved towards being a very lean, efficient and cost-effective rural college over the past five years by collaborating with higher education and sharing services.

“I have no slack left to offer voluntary [redundancy] schemes. There is nobody left who wants to go; everybody who wanted to go has already gone.”

Responding to Ms McIntyre’s evidence, Conservative MSP John Lamont (Ettrick, Roxburghshire and Berwickshire) claimed the SNP Government had “skewed priorities”.

“Ms McIntyre highlighted the extent of the problems when she said she could not protect staff from compulsory redundancies, nor protect student placements,” said Mr Lamont.

“The SNP Government is happy to spend money on their own pet projects and free giveaways, but when it comes to important issues like college funding, they are failing badly and these proposed cuts will have a lasting and devastating impact on young people in this region.”