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Smith voices fears over colleges’ future

The NAFC Marine Centre
The NAFC Marine Centre will receive a visit from Prince Charles.

A SHETLAND College board member has questioned why the islands’ NAFC Marine Centre is to receive four times more local authority funding than the Gremista institution.

Shetland South councillor George Smith, a former director of the Lerwick college, was speaking at Wednesday’s meeting of Shetland Islands Council’s development committee where members approved a £1.17 million grant to the NAFC for the year ahead. 

However the fisheries college has been warned to brace itself for major funding changes next year.

The council is using surplus funds left over from Shetland Development Trust, which is being wound up, to fund more than 40 per cent of the marine centre’s £2.9 million running costs in 2014/15.

In addition, the council continues to fork out more than £400,000 to lease the site of the Scalloway-based college from property company SLAP.

Smith questioned why the NAFC was receiving so much more than the £296,000 being handed to Shetland College. He pointed out that was just 12 per cent of its overall income.

Stressing that he supported what the NAFC has to offer, Smith said he could see no “strategic rationale” for such a large discrepancy in funding for the respective colleges.

Though it has made spending cuts of £900,000, councillors heard that the NAFC – which will still support the equivalent of 38 full time jobs in the next 12 months – faces further upheaval once a Shetland-wide review of further education is completed.

In October councillors backed the creation of a new project board aimed at bringing together the NAFC, Shetland College and Train Shetland by 2016.

But Smith fears things may come to a head before the further education review is even completed. He believes funding pressures may result in Shetland College having to cut back the number of courses it can offer.

“My fear is that, unless we take some swift action, we might not have a Shetland College – and indeed an NAFC – by the time we come out of this tertiary education review,” he said.

“[There is a] likelihood of staff reductions, therefore course reductions, therefore curtailment of learning opportunities for young folk and others who would like to attend Shetland College.”

Smith felt the NAFC had to find ways to wean itself off relying on SIC money and argued there was “absolutely no reason” why it could not be levering in external funds in the way Shetland College does.

It could attract more Scottish Funding Council cash and, by demonstrating the “world class” nature of its work, draw in research grants.

If research is led by fishing, fish farming and other marine industries, he suggested those same industries could be paying for it.

“We have a situation here where the council historically funded the vast majority of that,” Smith said. “That has to change if we’re going to have a level playing field.”

Economic development manager Douglas Irvine did not quibble with the points Smith made about external funding.

“The NAFC must change, it has to change,” Irvine said. “It can’t stay the way it is because the funding package that’s available at the moment is not going to be available in the future.”