I visited Stevenson College again to meet with staff and management to discuss the proposed merger of the college with Jewell and Esk College.
The meetings were a follow up to concerns raised with me by constituents last autumn when staff highlighted the lack of detail in the consultation on the merger.
I met with the EIS branch secretary for the college and he highlighted a number of concerns that remain over the proposed merger. Many staff are concerned for their jobs although progress has been made with an agreement that there will be no compulsory redundancies. However, that still leaves the issue of staff workloads if vacancies are not filled, and there are concerns about the size of classes and the availability of courses.
There is also considerable concern about how any merger would impact on students. Further education colleges, including Stevenson, tend to take in students who live relatively close by and the student population tends to be older, often returning to education after a break. Colleges offer students the chance for flexible learning that can fit in with their daily lives whether they have work or family commitments so there are worries that removing colleges from their local base could dissuade people from attending. In addition there are concerns that the Scottish Government’s proposals to prioritise places for young people aged 16-19, while admirable in their vision, run the risk of denying older students the opportunity to return to study.
The backdrop to all of these concerns is the Scottish Government’s spending review which has highlighted over 20% in real term cuts to the further education budget between the current year and 2014-15. This comes on top of a 10% cut to budgets in the last year.
While many staff at the college do not oppose mergers in principle, they are adamant that the quality of students’ experience must be uppermost. There is serious concern that across Scotland proposals are being driven by economic rather than educational imperatives.
While I was at Stevenson I also met with the College Principal Brian Lister. During our meeting we discussed the financial strain the college was under and he told me of his vision for a new merged institution and the opportunities he felt it could bring to the city.
He cited examples of previous mergers both in England and most recently in Glasgow and made interesting points about how colleges compete on a global education sector stage.
While I was impressed by his passion for the subject I believe that there are still questions that need to be answered about the proposed merger from an organisational and financial standpoint, especially if Telford College is brought into into the equation as has been suggested.
I am clear is that if there is to be a merger; it must be done in full consultation with staff and students and be based on the educational interests of the communities and students that stand to be affected. It must also be properly funded by the Scottish Government.